Museum Job Spotlight: Oliver Franklin
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The name of my museum is… Elisabet Ney Museum
My name is… Oliver Franklin
My job title is… Museum Site Coordinator
This job title means that I mainly work as…
Lead site programmer and curator
Give us a quick overview of your department/museum.
The Elisabet Ney Museum is the historic home and studio of Elisabet Ney. Ney was a remarkable intellect and social rebel, who, escaping the Prussians as a political refugee, left behind a very successful career as a sculptor in Berlin, then wound up on a farm in South Central Texas. She restarted her sculpting career in Austin in 1892 with a major commission from the State. With the commission money, she built “Formosa,” the formal name of the site, in what was then the far outskirts of town. From there she became a fixture and a true iconoclast with a certain cult of personality. Eventually she passed away at Formosa, in 1907. In 1911, the Texas Fine Arts Association was formed here in her honor, and it went on to be a major support for artists statewide. Later, they would move to another site and the Ney became a City of Austin property, which it remains today. Now, we have the largest collection of Elisabet’s work in one place in the world. An extraordinary woman, she blazed the trail for civil rights activists, particularly women’s rights movers and shakers, serving as a mentor for many future womens’ movement leaders in Texas.
What inspires you about your museum’s mission?
Our mission is to preserve and protect the site and its contents in order to educate Austin and the world about Elisabet Ney, her art, history, and legacy. That gives us so much to work with. She was a truly extraordinary person, and I believe she’s part of what makes Austin “Austin”. She was extremely intelligent and remarkably storied, and working with that, particularly the legacy portion, over the last few years, we’ve managed to make the museum much more relevant and beloved by opening new doors to the site, e.g. through programming much more heavily in art and community engagement than was ever done before, here. We have taken on an outdoor sculpture program and are providing young Austin women artists of all backgrounds with opportunities to show and talk about their work. Also, Elisabet was famed for her “Salon” culture that she enjoyed in Berlin and quite intentionally launched here in Austin. We’ve had a lot of fun playing with so many of these strands of her history and proving their deep resonances today. We feel that these engagement projects not only help tell her story, but also introduce her to broad new audiences, inspiring young people, artists, and Austinites generally with her vibrantly independent, intellectual, and vigorously nurturing approach to the world.
What advice would you give to the aspiring museum professional?
A major motivator for my work is my love of Austin. I moved here as a child after having visited it frequently on family trips, etc. For better or worse, I went all the way from 5th grade through my MA within a radius of about 4 miles. Austin has always been a deeply interesting and wonderfully nurturing city. So for me, being able to tell Austin stories and cultivate positive energy in my city is fundamental to my work. That said, I think if I were willing to be more mobile, I would have been making rather more money and probably managing a much larger site at this point in my career. So you have to make a decision–what is it that motivates you, and follow that. Though it was a seminal and enjoyable time in my career, I had a hard time working in the history business outside of Austin at my first museum job, because I felt I had gotten to know that other region’s culture and history better than my own and that hurt a bit. It was a fascinating area of its own, but I just wanted to celebrate Austin. And so I am doing that. I make an acceptable living and the site is terrific and we’re making more out of it every day. But if you want to be a part of a larger museum and do big things with tons of money, expect/plan to be mobile. If you love an intimate relationship with a community, do what you can to climb the ladder steps as they come, which by nature, is much less frequently than if your pool of potential geographies is much wider.
How did you find your way into the museum industry?
Honestly, it was an accident! I was planning to be a professor of Geography actually. I was in a very strong and intellectually stimulating Geography department at UT-Austin and loved the work. My Master’s Thesis was on wall murals in Austin and their role in the community; there were many at the time and there still are. (And of note, I find some of my thinking in that work–“environmental meaning”–resonant in my job today.) So I was always fascinated by the intersection of landscape and community. When I finished my coursework for the MA, I decided to take a break and wound up via a series of rather extraordinary events getting a job as the “Education Officer” at what was then the Hidalgo County Historical Museum in Edinburg, Texas. It’s now a fine and copious museum called the Museum of South Texas History. Though finding myself there seemed kind of surreal–I always thought if I left Austin, I’d go to New York, then here I am in the Rio Grande Valley of all places–I found the area fascinating. I went into Mexico frequently, working on historical assets and artistic projects on both sides of the border, and delving into the truly unique history and culture there. It was meant to be a break before getting a PhD but as it turned out, I wound up enjoying that work much more than I expected. Especially working with the children, and all the community engagement that we undertook. So instead of turning inward into the vortex of academia, I felt I was spinning these ideas out into the community, and helping organize and promote art, history, sociology, anthropology, and geographic work in the cities we worked. We did bilingual programming on both sides of the river, even code-switching programming, in the “patois” of the area. And the kids down there had it so hard. I wound up truly enjoying giving thousands of kids tours and doing all that work. Then I decided that’s what I’d do, instead of teach. Sometimes I regret it, thinking how I still hope to write “important” books (which I may yet do of course), and I still consider myself a Geographer at heart, but I know I am doing the right thing and I really don’t look back much.
Best advice you ever received from a museum professional:
Keep up the good work! Be careful with budgets! Keep thinking big thoughts. Be expansive! I can’t actually put any specifics down other than to say when people tell you you’re doing good work, trust them. It’s easy to feel like you’re not making a difference, and get down, especially when there are new challenges every day in our industry, but just keep doing the work you love and you should be OK. I would add that paying attention to mentors is a very important thing. I have been fortunate to have had a few mentors who have been extremely patient, reliable, and supportive. Take their commitment to you seriously. It’s a gift, one that’s very good for your work and your soul. One of them passed away recently, and I wished I had told him more recently how much his help meant to me. So also be sure to thank your mentors. Don’t take them for granted. And be a mentor yourself!
What specific skills enable you to succeed in your job?
Creativity is pretty key. Hoping to come up with stuff that no one else has done before is kind of a goal for me. John Huston, the film director, once said “It’s as much work to make a crappy film as it is to make a great one.” That’s something we think about often. Don’t waste your time! Also however, be cognizant of resources. Take risks but try to ensure that they are at least somewhat measured! Know how to read spreadsheets. Be a good writer. Probably above all, being in our business, specifically in a role like mine, takes gregariousness. Make lots of connections. Make the most of every collaboration. I believe collaboration is key. Nearly everything we do is a collaboration with someone. And finally, LISTEN to people. Don’t just talk. Listen. They are grateful, and usually, they are right.
What’s your favorite object or piece of art in your museum and why?
I’d have to say for physical objects it’s the site overall. We have an amazing 2.5 acre parcel in the heart of Central Austin with a beautifully odd Classical Revival cum Romanesque Revival stone building–Formosa. It’s central to everything we do. Her sculptures obviously are essential. In particular, the optimism they exude–their explicit intent to uplift the spirit of the viewer, in true Romantic style–succeeds to inspire nearly everyone who walks into the building.
What is your earliest memory of being in a museum?
I remember being at the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Natural History in NYC. I was actually born there to my Texan father and French mother, and we visited those often. But I never really thought about being a museum professional until I actually became one!
What is a story that most people don’t know about your museum or its collection?
There’s an awful lot they don’t know. That’s what makes it so exciting. I love meeting people who have never heard of Elisabet or our site, because that means we can tell them the story for the first time! That’s the best part of the job.
How does your museum function within your community?
This is a big question of course. I think that one major role we play is helping Austin remember what it means to be Austin. The AASLH Annual Meeting was held in Detroit this past fall, and will be held in Austin this coming fall. I wanted very much to go to Detroit, and I thought how interesting a comparison that was–Detroit and Austin. In Detroit’s case, it suffered terribly from a form of “implosion”. Meanwhile, Austin, in my and many other people’s minds, is suffering terribly from “Explosion”. With the landscape undergoing epic change every day, always, nearly everything is being demolished and something else is taking its place. I think the character of both cities have suffered traumatically. Both cities are seeing their souls evolve or devolve in shocking and unsettling ways. I maintain that change in Austin is often an acquired taste, and some tastes are more easily acquired than others, so I try to take a pragmatic and positive view of it. And therefore I believe that historical sites in Detroit and historical sites in Austin both help the city and its residents maintain their bearings. Our site is not going anywhere thank God and its stories–primarily of this extraordinary woman and prototypical Austinite–are only being told louder and better than ever. In the process, I would add, we are providing young artists with some wonderful opportunities at a time when it is very difficult to make a living as an artist in Austin anymore. So we really are attempting to nurture the city in as many ways as we can, and I think that’s our primary role after all.