DICTIONARY OF ART HISTORIANS
A Biographical Dictionary of Historic Scholars, Museum Professionals and Academic Historians of Art
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Austin, A[rthur] Everett, Jr., “Chick”
January 1, 1900
January 1, 1957
Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum, early exponent of modern art in America. Austin was born to wealthy Boston parents, his father was a research MD, Arthur Everett Austin, Sr.(1861-1938) and his mother, Laura Ann Etnier (Austin) (1864-1944), who was herself independently wealthy. Raised essentially by his mother, Austin attended local grammar schools and visited Europe as a child. Never a good student, he entered Harvard but was asked to leave because of poor grades. At the suggestion of faculty who took a liking to him, participated in the archaeological digs of George Reisner (1867-1942) in Egypt and the Sudan beginning in 1922. This reinvigorated his love for art objects and he returned to Harvard in 1924 to complete his degree. Austin had attracted the attention of Fogg Museum director Edward Forbes (q.v.) and Harvard art historian professor Paul J. Sachs (q.v.). In 1925 Austin took on part-time duties at the Fogg, demonstrating techniques in Forbes’ conservation classes. During this period he developed friendships with fellow students who would one day form a coterie of cultural intelligencia, including the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock (q.v.), art historian Agnes Rindge [Claflin] (q.v.), composer Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) and ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein (1907-1996). Through Hitchcock, Austin also met architect Philip Johnson (q.v.). All of these were to assist Austin in later years. In 1927, Forbes put forth Austin for the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The Atheneum’s board, chaired by Charles A. Goodwin, was highly conservative and Austin, a bi-sexual and modern art devotee, not prepared to acquiesce to them. He married Goodwin’s niece, Helen Goodwin (1898-1986), and taught the first art history courses at Trinity College, Hartford. Although continually at odds with the board, Austin began acquiring old masters and contemporary art works that today comprise the finest pieces of the Atheneum. He gave Edward Hopper his first single-artist museum exhibition in 1928 and Hartford native Milton Avery’s first museum show in 1930. He purchased Bernardo Strozzi’s Saint Catherine (1610-15) and a Le Nain landscape in 1931. An important Piero di Cosimo of 1490 was purchased the following year. In 1934 Greuze’s Indolence (1756) and Degas’ Double Portrait of the Painter’s Cousins (1865-8) were acquired. The museum’s large Caravaggio Ecstasy of St Francis (1594) was bought in 1943 along with Gauguin’s Portrait of Meyer de Haan (1889-90). Other masterworks purchased included de Chirico, Ernst, Picasso, Miró, Balthus (the first by an American Museum), Dalí and Rubens (the latter’s Portrait of the Archduke Ferdinand, 1635). Nearly all of these acquisitions were made over the objection of the board for reasons of cost or subject matter. In 1934 alone he mounted Picasso’s first American museum retrospective (before MoMA’s) and organized the first performance of Gertrud Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, featuring an all-black cast. Austin’s interests turned more and more theatre. He performed magic shows at the museum and, as a fundraiser, staged ever-more elaborate balls. All this was at the cost of scholarship and financial propriety. Much of the text for his exhibition catalogs was hastily written by Hitchcock; his office littered with overdue bills by dealers. By 1938 Austin, always known as “Chick,” had withdrawn from his family to live with a male partner. In 1943, while most of the country endured the somber hardships of World War II, Austin used the Atheneum’s theater to stage and star in John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1627). The play about incest and murder resulted in Austin’s dismissal at the Hartford museum. Again, Edward Forbes secured a job for him. In 1946 Austin accepted the directorship of the Ringling Museum [of Art] in Sarasota, Florida. At the Ringling, he opened the late John Ringling’s private home as a museum, developed a conservation program badly needed for the baroque pictures there, and, in 1952, moved and installed an Italian rococo theater. However the politics of running a state-owned art museum embroiled him in a various disputes, including a high-profile investigation by the Miami Herald. A heavy smoker, Austin contracted lung cancer in 1956. He returned to his family in Hartford where he died the following year at age 57. He was succeeded at Sarasota by Kenneth Donahue (q.v.).
Sources: Weber, Nicholas Fox. Patron Saints: Five Rebels who Opened America to a New Art 1928-1943. New York: Knopf, 1992; Gaddis, Eugene R. Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000; Gaddis, Eugene R. "Chick Austin: The Ringmaster at the Museum." Images from the World Between: The Circus in 20th Century American Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 149-160.
Bibliography: [posthumous writing] A. Everett Austin, Jr.: a Director's Taste and Achievement. Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1958.