Exploring Lives – Interview with Oliver Franklin

Editor’s Note:  In December 2012, Oliver Franklin was appointed Museum Site Coordinator (effectively “director”) of the Elisabet Ney Museum. As the following interview reveals, his background, interests, and intellectual perspectives made him a wise choice for this position. His plans for this historical museum located in Hyde Park are ambitious, which will be of particular to neighbors. He has a strong sense of place and a deep love for Austin, a city he originally moved to with his parents in 1971 when he was still in grade school.


Pecan Press: Like Elisabet Ney, your parents had an artistic, bohemian lifestyle. Can you talk a bit about growing up in that environment?

Oliver Franklin: My father, George Franklin, was born in Llano County. My mother, Anne Lacorne Franklin, was Parisian. They ran and owned the Austin Want Ads from 1971 to 1987. Before I was born, though, my parents were deeply involved in theater and the arts in both the US and Europe.

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My first home was in Manhattan, just a few blocks from the Greenwich Village cold-water flat where my dad spent the late 1950s. As a result, I had an intimate awareness of twentieth century creative history. There are a million stories about my mom, my dad and their luminary friends that I could trumpet but, I suppose like Lorne, Elisabet’s son, I find the stories thrilling but also frankly a bit exhausting. Convention held a very low priority in our home. That said, my parents were wonderful people and had a nurturing impact on many. The resonance with Elisabet and Edmund, her husband, is palpable.

PP: When you were still in elementary school, your parents moved to Austin. How did the move affect you?

OF: I was familiar with Austin because we would spend summer months on the family ranch, and we’d often venture into town to cool off at Barton Springs. I was in the fourth grade when we moved here, so I was too young to sense much culture shock. But it was a beautiful, sweet, tolerant, and thoughtful town. We quickly embraced Austin music, thanks to KUT, KMFA, and KOKE! My parents enjoyed the opera on KMFA every Saturday morning and then Waylon and Willie in the afternoon. By my late teens, my buddies and I cottoned to the ‘Dillo, Luckenbach, and Soap Creek. Then punk rock hit. It was an awesome time, and Austin was a wonderful place to grow up.

PP: Given your background, should we assume you majored in the arts in college?

OF: Well, I did take a lot of art classes; but UT and Austin were so laid back, I didn’t know or care much what I’d major in. After graduating from Saint Stephen’s, I enrolled in Plan II; but I left that program to take random classes I liked until I could figure out what appealed to me. Eventually, I discovered that I was closest to graduating in geography. As it turned out, that was ideal. I loved thinking about how “places” work, how they form and inform people and culture, and vice versa. To this day I am deeply influenced by the intellectual foundation I got from these studies and my professors, notably Robin Doughty, Shane Davies, and Karl Butzer. I am a geographer at heart.

PP: At that point, did you have a career goal in mind?

OF: I aspired to be a professor of geography. I was fascinated and perturbed by the difference between “landscape” and “real estate.” My master’s thesis, Listen to the Walls Speak: Murals and Symbology in Austin Texas,” explored that notion. The city’s landscape became quite precious to me. It still is. My goal was to earn my PhD elsewhere and return to my beloved Austin to teach.

PP: But something happened to change your direction, leading to your first museum job in the Rio Grande Valley. Can you talk about that?

OF: Well yes. I had an “unstable” ex-girlfriend…and felt I had absolutely no choice but to leave town, immediately. So I packed a bag, threw it into my ’67 Bug, and headed to the border! But while there, I miraculously landed a job as museum educator at what’s now the Museum of South Texas History, in Edinburg.

PP: You had no experience or training in museum work. How did you approach that challenge?

OF: I was scared to death. I was in a place I barely knew. I had traveled in Europe and Mexico but after New York never actually lived out of sight of a moontower. I was terrified of public speaking. I didn’t even really like museums!

At first I figured I’d give it a year, then get my PhD. But I soon fell in love with the work. The kids I taught were amazing: loving and delightful and yet so utterly poor and deprived. I thought I could perhaps apply my studies to help them. If ever there was a community that needed a “secular church,” one that celebrated the place/community itself, it was the Valley. And the history was fascinating! So I arranged with school districts to bring whole grades—district-wide—through that museum. I also got very involved in the whole region, on both sides of the Rio Grande, in historic preservation, arts programming, film, theater and much more.

A few years, some terrific stories, and a couple of healthier girlfriends later, it was time to come home. I got an educator job at the Capitol. And then I got married (which I no longer am), and had two enchanting kiddoes of my own.

PP: You eventually worked at the Harry Ransom Center in outreach. For most of its history, it really seemed to do little outreach. Were you hired to change that?

OF: Yes, that was my job, Executive Curator for Public Programs. In 2003, the Ransom Center, with its spectacular collection, had just expanded into the old Huntington Galleries. It was utterly new. At the time, hardly anyone off-campus knew anything about the Ransom Center. I was tasked with changing that.

PP: What do you see as some of your accomplishments there?

OF: I enjoyed so much, but the exhibit-related American ‘Twenties Music Series, featuring sixteen Austin bands playing 1920’s inspired music in five downtown nightclubs including Emo’s (!), with a ribald “Flapper” fashion show to boot…that was amazing. But so were productions featuring local artists like Luke Savisky, Peter Stopschinski, Graham Reynolds, Tosca String Quartet, and more. Fortunately the Ransom Center staff was great, and that made my time there even more special.

PP: Recently then you came to the Ney as the director. What drew you to this position?

OF: I always wanted to manage a facility. And, frankly, the Ney is an astonishing “facility,” a massive kaleidoscope of storytelling. When you look at the legacy of the site, the extraordinary individual at its heart, and the community that surrounds it—all are rich beyond belief. People don’t usually come to historic sites expecting to be challenged. Interested, yes. Inspired, perhaps. But amused? Surprised? Touched? Confused? Never. A big box—a conventional museum—isn’t nearly as much fun. This is terrific.

I would add that the notion of working for the City of Austin itself, and its Parks and Recreation Department, was very compelling. My co-workers, at all levels, are dedicated, smart, and tireless.

PP: Early on, the way the sculptures were exhibited at the museum changed? Why?

OF: We felt that the sculptures had a voice, a unique and distinct one. Indeed, these pieces were absolutely Elisabet’s way of telling stories. She too was in essence a storyteller. The sculptures were her medium. And their voice had become lost. We needed to give that back.

So we stripped away the text. You’ll notice that there are almost no words on the first floor. The more conventional second floor mixes personal items (including her extraordinary bed) and text. But the Tower, a room Elisabet designed for Edmund to write in, is almost exclusively words. That was his medium. Visitors have his words and a typewriter up there with which to ruminate on themelves. That room is about thought, contemplation and, ultimately, sharing. But also silence.

PP: The Ney is a museum without changing exhibits. How does a director maintain ongoing interest, get people to keep coming back?

OF: We will always be exploring opportunities to adjust, to shift focus, and so forth. That said, there are oceans of people in Austin who still have never been to the Ney, which means more people that we can tell her story to.

As for repeat visitors, I firmly believe that museum storytelling—or “docentry”— is a genuine art form, not unlike documentary filmmaking. We push our docents to experiment, to craft their own voice. We also reject the notion of scripts. As a result, one visit can be very different from the next.

Furthermore, what really propelled Elisabet was engagement. She was always cultivating community at Formosa. She sustained that with her ever active mind, always willing to converse, challenge, and inspire, and ask that of her visitors. So we aim to follow her example through vigorous programming.

PP: What are your major goals at this point?

OF: I never want to do anything that’s ever been done before. So we challenge ourselves to come up with terrific new ideas for programs, interpretive strategies, events and installations, ones that will be insightful, unexpected, and fun. Increasingly creative collaborations are coming that we think will really excite people. You can count on that. And it’s gratifying that PARD is willing to let us be creative here.

PP: You will also be working on the buildings and grounds. What’s on the horizon?

OF: Well, the historic prairie recreation is doing precisely what we hoped—becoming a beautiful natural landscape, with some spectacular spring and fall flowers. There are precious few spaces in the central city like it. It’s also a unique educational asset, and subdued interpretive signage will appear soon.

The north side of the creek, essentially a void for so long, is prime now to assume its own character. I am very pleased with the way our events, the new signage at 45th, and the Lodge paintings have infused personality there. It’s so nice to see people picnicking under the trees. Within the next few years, we hope to have “the Lodge” renovated into our offices, classrooms, and galleries. That’s also urgent because we yearn to open the main building’s spectacular basement to visitors.

The main building will also undergo another phase of major work in order to provide the best environment possible for the house and its contents. To accomplish all this, we will have to raise money—mostly through grants. This effort will start in earnest this spring.

PP: The building is historic. Any chance it could become a National Historic Landmark?

OF: It would be a high honor. The Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion are Austin’s only NHL’s. But we have a strong argument to make for the Ney, one that will only strengthen as more people become aware of us.

PP: How do you see the Ney and Hyde Park having a mutually beneficial relationship?

OF: When Elisabet built Formosa, Hyde Park was in its infancy. The Elisabet Ney Museum has been a part of Hyde Park forever and it will be forever. We benefit so much from the love and care our neighbors have for Elisabet’s home. The Ney has increasing international stature, and people from all over the world come and are enchanted by Elisabet, her story, her home, and her community. All in all I believe that as the years go by, the neighborhood and the museum will continue to enrich each other symbiotically and organically. I certainly will do everything I possibly can to ensure that that relationship remains robust, healthy, and intimate.