Jerry Bywaters and Texas Art
From regional artist to Director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the accomplishments of Jerry Bywaters are synonymous with the growth of art in Texas. He came to public attention as the dynamic figurehead of the Dallas Nine, a group that emerged in the 1930s. Members of the group focused on individual artistic styles while working with others to portray the "American Scene" by depicting unique qualities of the Texas landscape. As an artist, an art critic for the Dallas Morning News, a trustee of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (1935-1937), Director of the DMFA (1943-1964), and a professor at Southern Methodist University, Bywaters was a force that propelled Texas art beyond the provinces and onto the national scene.
As Director of the DMFA, Bywaters embraced a very modern role for the Museum as a dynamic center for education and a catalyst in the community. His article "Art Museums: Repositories or Creative Centers?," which appeared in the Southwest Review in 1945, proposed a reevaluation of the purpose of the public museum: "It would seem apparent that the young regional art museums in America are 'better,' according to agreed contemporary definition; they are growing, active community centers, successfully sponsoring and interpreting the arts, while most of the older museums are not growing, are not active, and are not zealous in bringing art and people together in better understanding." He believed museums should be responsible for inspiring and cultivating art within the community. Through the federally sponsored New Deal program under President Roosevelt, Bywaters was responsible for directing six mural projects across Texas. He encouraged artists to reach within their own experience as Texans for inspiration, and under his direction the Museum began to focus on the growing creative needs of Dallas. John Lunsford, an assistant curator under Bywaters at the DMFA (and later curator of a retrospective exhibition of Bywaters' career), recalls, "The Museum had a series of set exhibits that covered regional art amazingly. There was the Texas Annual, which was usually held at the time of the State Fair, a competitive show that was tri-sponsored by the Witte Museum in San Antonio, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. That was the statewide painting and sculpture show."
Attendance increased from 80,000 to more than 200,000 annual visitors during Bywaters' tenure as Director of the DMFA. In the summer of 1950, he took advantage of the popular new medium of television, initiating a weekly show called Is This Art?. The Sunday afternoon program included tours of museums, discussions of works of art, and painting and sculpting demonstrations by artists. Bywaters was a perpetual advocate of museum education, encouraging new artists through the Museum School. He also authored 75 Years of Art in Dallas, which remains the authority on the Museum's institutional history prior to 1978.
Though Bywaters taught continuously throughout his directorship, his involvement in numerous civic efforts and his crucial role as director surely pulled him away from his own painting as well as from his close relationships with his painter colleagues. Lunsford recalls, "By the time I was here, Jerry's relationship to the local artists was two-pronged, I think you would say. Two or three of the established people around the state—who had been part of the Dallas Nine—had what I would call a detente relationship [with Bywaters]. It was cordial on the surface but there was tension. I think Jerry was probably a little jealous that they had been able to stay painters and didn't have to do anything other than teach. And by then, of course, he was a museum director and teacher and had almost stopped painting. By the time I arrived, in 1958, Jerry was elusive-or maybe evasive is even more accurate-about how much he was practicing art at all. But he would own up to the fact that he would sometimes do watercolors when they went west in the summer."
Bywaters was not the first director of the Dallas Museum to focus on Texas artists. In 1934 the Texas Treasury Department appointed John Ankeney, the Museum's first professional director, as the regional director for public works of art. A few years later, DMFA Director Richard Foster Howard coordinated the Texas artists segment of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition. The work of Jerry Bywaters amplified this tradition. Though his version of regionalism has gone in and out of style over the years, his positive effect on the Museum and on Texas art has been inarguable and lasting.
1. The Art Institute of Dallas occupied the school space from 1936 to 1941. In 1941 trustees of the Dallas Art Association established the DMFA School, of which Jerry Bywaters was the first director.
Lauren Schell, “Jerry Bywaters and Texas Art,”in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 7.