A Hidden Gem: Old Jail Art Center in Albany, TX

The Old Jail Art Center. photo, southwest art.
The Old Jail Art Center.

By Norman Kolpas

A visit to the Old Jail Art Center in Albany, TX, is not for the faint of heart. Its location seems designed to test one’s commitment: 122 miles west of Fort Worth, 37 miles northeast of Abilene, and 160 miles southeast of Lubbock—in other words, literally in the middle of nowhere. But adventurous art lovers might find the drive an opportunity to savor a western landscape where the palette of colors ranges through every shade of green and brown and where the Texas sky really is wide and high. Not an urban color to be seen.

Albany itself is a genre painting of a town, complete with Victorian courthouse, picturesque town square, and restored classic movie house—a Thomas Kinkade version of West Texas, set amid grassy, rolling hills and miles of ranch land. This is a geography better known for its historic cattle empires: the Pitchfork ranch, the 6666, and the XIT. Here the cowboys are real and the principle tourist attractions are great hunting, frontier forts, and dude ranch experiences complete with bunkhouses, chuck wagons, and grazing cattle. A remote village of 2,056 residents is assuredly not the sort of place most people would expect to find one of the nation’s better mid-size museums. But that’s what makes the Old Jail Art Center such a treat.

Jesus Bautista Moroles, Sun Symbol [1984], granite, 18 feet x 6 feet. southwest art.
Jesus Bautista Moroles, Sun Symbol [1984], granite, 18 feet x 6 feet.

In fact, since 1989 the center has been accredited by the American Association of Museums, placing it among a highly selective group: only one in 10 Texas museums can boast membership. There are good reasons for the museum’s high ranking.

The permanent collection of this tiny museum includes everything from ancient Chinese tomb figures and pre-Columbian art to works by 20th-century masters such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Amedeo Modigliani, and Alexan-der Calder.

American masters are represented as well. Especially appropriate to Albany and West Texas are the works on paper by American Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Marin, whose images celebrate life in small-town, rural America where the values are traditional, conservative, and patriotic. And there is also a strong commitment to the work of contemporary Texas artists.

But the strength of the collection is now, as it has been since its inception some two decades ago, its Fort Worth School acquisitions. These paintings and drawings were donated by the museum’s founders—Reilly Nail, the scion of a local ranching family, and his cousin Bill Bomar, a Fort Worth native then residing in Taos who was both a serious collector and an accomplished artist associated with the Fort Worth School. This movement, which lasted from the end of World War II through the middle of the 1950s, helped change the national perception of Texas art.

John Sloan, Nude With Indian Pot [1943], oil 23 1/2 x 17 1/2. painting, southwest art.
John Sloan, Nude With Indian Pot [1943], oil 23 1/2 x 17 1/2.

During that tumultuous decade Fort Worth was home to a varied group of artists, many associated in some way with the Fort Worth School of Fine Arts. The school had brought to town the first show of such School of Paris artists as Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and André Derain. As a result, local artists began to experiment with a variety of new forms and to move away from the careful representation and earthy subject matter of Regionalism, which had dominated Texas art since the early 1930s. For example, the flattened, shifting planes and structural grid of Cubism attracted Bill Bomar, Dickson Reeder, George Gram-mer, Cynthia Brants, Bror Utter, and David Brownlow. Surrealist imagery influenced the work of Veronica Helfensteller, Kelly Fearing, and Flora Blanc, as well as that of Reeder, Utter, and Bomar. In fact, Bomar’s work, which is heavily represented, is almost anti-formulaic, often combining three or four different techniques in one painting.

Bill Bomar, Beach [n.d.], oil, 13 1/2 x 19 1/2. painting, southwest art.
Bill Bomar, Beach [n.d.], oil, 13 1/2 x 19 1/2.

Himself an avid collector, Bomar was often influenced by the works he collected. This is particularly clear in the portrait of his mother which he entitled Modigliani Head of Jewel Bomar, a work inspired by Modigliani’s Girl With Braids [1918], which he purchased while living in New York. Both works are now on exhibit in Albany and, with the rest of Bomar’s collection, formed the backbone of the Old Jail Art Center’s collection when the museum was chartered in 1978.

The center’s permanent collection now numbers some 1,807 pieces. The main focus is on modern drawings, paintings, and prints by well-known Americans such as Marin, John Sloan, Charles Demuth, and Benton. Europeans are represented by Klee, Modigliani, Picasso, and Miro, among others. The collection also contains a sizable number of works by contemporary British artists such as Adrian Heath, Henry Moore, and Alan Reynolds. In addition to the regional collection of the Fort Worth School, there are several works by contemporary Taos artists. And the center actively collects and showcases the work of young Texas artists.

Inside the Old Jail Art Center. photo, southwest art.
Inside the Old Jail Art Center.

While small, the jail’s Far East art collection is also impressive, highlighted by 35 Chinese terra-cotta tomb figures dating from the early Han Dynasty to the T’ang Dynasty. They are joined by 10 pieces of tomb pottery and 12 examples of porcelain decorative arts, which are on long-term loan from the San Antonio Museum of Art. Today, the center also houses the W.O. Gross Jr. collection of pre-Columbian art, an extensive and important collection of earthenware vessels, votive figurines, and tomb pottery from the cultures of Chimu, Colima, Huastec, Jalisco, Maya, Mixtec, Nayarit, and Teotihuacan. Some pieces date as far back as 1000 B.C.

Fritz Scholder, Taos Gorge in Winter II [1982], oil, 12 7/8 x 14 7/8. painting, southwest art.
Fritz Scholder, Taos Gorge in Winter II [1982], oil, 12 7/8 x 14 7/8.

The Marshall R. Young Courtyard and the museum’s surrounding area offer an exceptional range of three-dimensional works and provide the setting for the jail’s collection of 20th-century outdoor sculpture. Jesus Bautista Moroles’ granite Sun Symbol anchors the courtyard, where it is complemented by Pericle Fazzini’s Con-servation and several other important figurative bronzes made since 1945 by Amer-ican artists such as Evaline Sellors and the late Charles Williams. Located in front of the old jail building is another Moro-les sculpture, Moon Ring 3, which was included in an invitation-only sculpture exhibition at the White House in 1995-96.

Even the jail building itself is a minor work of art. Located just east of Albany’s bustling, two-block-long downtown, it is one of a few outstanding examples of Texas 19th-century Classic architecture still in existence and has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1976.

Jozef Bakos, Santa Fe Scene [c. 1936], oil, 39 1/2 x 29 1/2. painting, southwest art.
Jozef Bakos, Santa Fe Scene [c. 1936], oil, 39 1/2 x 29 1/2.

Designed and built by John Thomas of Fort Worth’s Thomas and Woerner and completed in August 1878 at the then-shocking cost of $9,000, the old jail once housed such notorious outlaws and gunmen as John Selman, who managed to escape from a second-floor cell. In service until 1929, the building was then abandoned. When local ranch heir Robert Nail paid $25 for the building and $375 for the land in 1940, it was to save the jail from demolition. At his death in 1968, the building passed to his nephew, Reilly Nail, and the center opened to the public in 1980. Nail served as the museum’s director until 1990 and was a driving force behind its ambitious approach to exhibitions.

In the year 2000 alone the museum has offered an exhibition of works by Texans Leandro Erlich and Joseph Havel, shown at the 2000 Whitney Biennial in New York City; paintings from the Ben E. Keith Collection of Western Art; and small, an annual emerging artists exhibition. Of course there are also regular selections from the jail’s own Asian, Native American, European, and Amer-ican ceramics collections.

The very presence of the museum has inspired some art lovers—including Ted Pillsbury, former di-rector of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth to take up residence in Albany, and thousands of others to make the pilgrimage to this improbable art shrine.

Featured in February 2001