After decades with few upgrades to its 1892 building, the Elisabet Ney Museum, the studio and home of the trailblazing German-American artist, will embark on long-needed renovations, thanks to $3.4 million in city and federal funding.
And a new $200,000 fundraising campaign by the auxiliary Friends of the Elisabet Ney Museum organization will support an interpretive plan with fresh research that will tell Ney’s compelling story in a contemporary context.
A classically-trained sculptor, Ney is known for her life-size marble statues of notable people as well as literary and biblical figures. After immigrating from Germany, she settled in Austin at age 59 and built a studio of rough-cut limestone block along Waller Creek in the Hyde Park neighborhood. She enlarged it in 1902 to include more living space in a two-story wing topped with a crenelated tower.
Featuring a permanent display of Ney’s sculpture and objects pertaining to her life, the museum is operated by the city of Austin and managed by its Parks and Recreation Department. The building and its 2.5-acre grounds is on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is a founding site of the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios coalition and the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, among other designations.
The $3.4 million for improvements comes from $1.2 million in voter-approved bond funds; $1.8 million in Hotel Occupancy Taxes earmarked for historic preservation and tourism; and $265,000 from the city’s parkland dedication funds. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also granted the project $150,000.
Upgrades will include long-needed renovations to all doors and windows as well as a museum quality HVAC system. Also on the list is new interior lighting and an updated security system.
The most dramatic physical upgrade will be an accessible pedestrian bridge across Waller Creek which bisects the site.
The museum will close for renovations in January 2023 while the grounds will largely remain accessible. When it re-opens in 2024, the museum will feature a fresh installation of its permanent collection, and a more thorough presentation of Ney’s unconventional life and artistic legacy.
“Ney is a woman very relevant to today,” said Laura Esparza, manager of the city’s Museums and Cultural Programs Division. “The city and the Friends of the Elisabet Ney Museum are on the same page when it comes to creating a new interpretative plan for the museum. We’re excited to tell the story of her as an amazing artist and woman, rather than the story of the white men she sculpted.”
A radical non-conformist for her time, Ney was 19 when she became the first female sculpture student admitted to Munich Academy of Art.
When she married progressive Scottish scientist and physician Edmund D. Montgomery, she refused to take his name, proclaiming she was “no man’s property.” They remained secretly married for many years while she pursued her artistic career independently.
Ney wore her hair short (uncommon for her time) and often donned trousers or loose fitting, practical “reform dress” that challenged 19th-century gender norms. She rode her horses astride as men did.
In Austin, Ney routinely slept on a cot on the roof of her studio, which she accessed via a trap door she called the “Skytrap.”
Her time in Austin proved to be enormously creative for her, leading to several notable works. One of her signature sculptures is the figure of Lady Macbeth, now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The plaster model is on display in Austin. A commission from the Texas State Legislature led to statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, both in the Texas State Capitol in Austin and in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
An early leader of the Texas women’s movement, Ney was known for the salons she hosted with intellectuals, artists, musicians and politicians holding forth on creek side benches. Visiting luminaries to her gatherings included opera singer Enrico Caruso, Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and politician William Jennings Bryan. Ney also lobbied leaders of the University of Texas to include an art school in their planning. (It didn’t happen until the late 1930s.)
After she died in 1907, Ney’s friends and supporters founded the Texas Fine Arts Association, a precursor to the Laguna Gloria Art Museum (later the Austin Museum of Art) and Arthouse, also an art venue. In 2011, Austin Museum of Art and Arthouse merged to become The Contemporary Austin.
“Many people don’t realize the cultural significance of this preserved space and what it means to Austin and its cultural history,” said Jack Nokes, president of the Friends of the Ney, adding that it’s “essentially hallowed ground for Austin’s artistic and idiosyncratic character.”
“But the story the museum tells has to have a comprehensive update, with new research, modern storytelling techniques, and public input from the entire Austin community. We want to send the message that all visitors are welcome.”
The Friends of the Ney has already received a $40,000 grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago. Austin’s Still Water Foundation has issued a $25,000 challenge grant.
Esparaza and Nokes credit former Ney Museum director Oliver Franklin, who died in April, with initiating a more inclusive vision that set the groundwork for the interpretive plan. Under his 10-year leadership, the museum began a program of rotating exhibitions spotlighting women artists, as well as a robust slate of public activities and collaborations.
“Oliver had a big vision for the future,” said Esparza. “Now it’s time for us to see it through.”