Passage to the Past

On the heels of a recent renovation, the Elisabet Ney Museum is ready to re-inspire, uplift, and engage its community. The artist would be pleased.

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Along the untouched stretch of East 44th Street between Avenues G and H, a bucolic meadow of native prairie grasses shimmers under the blaze of the hot August sun. Near the middle of the two-and-half-acre field, tucked into the quiet neighborhood of Hyde Park, resides one of the city's most stunning cultural gems—the Elisabet Ney Museum. The word sursum—the Latin word for "uplift"—is carved along with the dates "1892-1902" on the limestone cornerstone at the front of the museum. That word was the motto of the internationally renowned sculptor Elisabet Ney, who embraced the belief that humankind is always capable of aspiring to greater heights and ambitions.

"This was her vision," explains Oliver Franklin, director and site supervisor of the museum. "She was trying to lift everyone up—and very actively trying to uplift the downtrodden, particularly women. She had very noble intentions despite being eccentric and a bit shocking from time to time."

Ney was born in Munster, Westphalia, Germany, in 1833, and spent much of her childhood watching her father carve intricate statuary and gravestones. This sparked her passion for the artistic discipline, and she became the first woman to study sculpture at the Munich Academy of Art and later at the Berlin Academy of Art, where she had the opportunity to study with master sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch (whose bust can be seen in the main room of the museum). Through her ambitions and connections, Ney went on to create sculptures of some of Europe's most important thinkers and leaders, including Otto von Bismarck, Arthur Schopenhauer, and King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

After immigrating to southeast Texas by way of Georgia in 1873, Ney took a deliberate break from her artistic endeavors to run an 1,100-acre plantation, called Liendo, and raise her only son, Lauren, while her husband, Edmund Montgomery, wrote and advocated to improve the opportunities of the local community. (Montgomery is responsible for the founding of what later became Prairie View A&M, a historically black university in Prairie View, Texas.) During this 18-year period, she developed an eccentric reputation because of her short hair, her unladylike attire of pantaloons, her practice of riding astride horses rather than the traditional sidesaddle (expected of women during this era), and her decision not to change her original surname after marriage.

Ney's career as a sculptor resumed when she was invited to Austin by Texas Governor Oran Roberts and commissioned to create two seminal sculptures, one of Sam Houston and the other of Stephen F. Austin, for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Ney invested much of her earnings ($32,000) in purchasing land and building her studio in Austin, so she could work in the new, growing city and be available for future commissions.

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Today, a visitor who steps inside the front door of the Ney Museum can view many of Ney's important life-size sculptures and busts of these extraordinary men. Built in 1892, the original studio—called Formosa, which means "beautiful" in Portuguese—harks back to another time and place. In the main studio, the enormous window also doubles as a sliding door, through which Ney could move large sculptures, such as Prometheus Bound, into and out of the space. (After Ney sold her studio in Berlin, all of her European sculptures were shipped to Austin and prominently displayed at Formosa.)

On a recent August afternoon, the sun casts luminous shadows and light upon the sculptor's masterpieces. It's quite easy to imagine Ney at work in the bare-bones, well-lit studio. Exposed wood beams stretch across the high ceilings. Various figures and busts seem to stare like ghosts from the distant past, among them a sculpture of Lady Macbeth, her elegant hands clasped in anguish. As it turned out, Ney's husband never permanently moved from their plantation home in southeast Texas. That didn't stop Ney from embracing her new home; the artist slept, often naked, underneath the stars on the rooftop of Formosa. Above the main studio space, a visitor can spot a spartan loft with a ladder to a trapdoor that leads to the building's roof. Franklin says, "She called that her 'sky trap.'"

Later, in 1902, Ney enlarged the space with a third room on the main floor, a second floor with a parlor for visitors, and then a castle-like turret, where she set up a small writing studio for Montgomery with an uninterrupted view of the surrounding meadow. Now, at the top of the narrow spiral staircase, one finds a beige-colored Selectric sitting on a simple wooden desk with an invitation to write on "Edmund's typewriter." "People have left a James Joyce quote and Fitzgerald," says Franklin with a playful smile. "It's become exactly what I hoped—a room dedicated to words." Behind a modest wooden bookshelf, a hidden doorway offers another access to the rooftop.

Upon Ney's death in 1907, Montgomery sold Formosa to Ella Dancy Dibrell. In keeping with the sculptor's wishes, the contents of the studio were bequeathed to the University of Texas. In 1911, Dibrell and her friends established the Texas Fine Arts Association (which later became Arthouse, and, more recently, The Contemporary) in memory of Ney and her visionary spirit. Similar to the days when the sculptor lived in the studio, groups of artists, suffragists, and intellectuals gathered on the sloping banks of nearby Waller Creek and exchanged thoughts, ideas, and inspiration. The property and building were eventually bought by the City of Austin, in 1941.

During the past two years, the museum has undergone a number of renovations in hopes of increasing visitor traffic to the once-sleepy cultural site. Eighteen months ago, Franklin came on board as the new director, and additional staff—including Frank Wick and Lindsay Barras—are working to expand educational programs, marketing, and the ongoing care of the unique collection. Some of the updates in the master renovation include the restoration of the surrounding landscape, a new drainage system, and a more sophisticated climate control system. In 2012-2013, the institution was closed for eight months while the entire roof was replaced.

Throughout the year, the museum hosts a variety of events on its beautiful property. For example, on October 26, in partnership with Polka-Works and Texas Folklife, it will present Polkapocalypse, with live music and other family-friendly activities. More recently, on Museum Day (September 21), the museum offered Portraiture in the Park, an exploration of the art of portraiture that featured free caricatures, mask making, stone-portrait carving demonstrations, and other activities.

All of these efforts and more speak to the revitalization of the spirit of Elisabet Ney and her vision. "Ney was all about inspiration and engagement," says Franklin. "We're trying very hard to bring her voice back."


Photography by Nicole Mlakar

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