Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum

By: Ellen Sawyer

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 30, 2019

The McNay Art Museum is the legacy of Jessie Marion Koogler McNay, an heiress, artist, and collector who upon her death in 1950 gave the city of San Antonio her home, the twenty-three-acre estate surrounding it, and two-thirds of her wealth as an endowment to establish and support a museum of modern art. McNay's Spanish-Mediterranean-style villa, at 6000 North New Braunfels Avenue, was designed by Atlee B. and Robert M. Ayres and constructed in 1927. The villa, which is graced by ornamental wrought iron, rare tiles and woods, and designs hand-stenciled by McNay, provides an intimate atmosphere to view art. The original collection of some 200 works included outstanding paintings by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Chaim Soutine, Georges Rouault, and other artists working in the Expressionist tradition, whom McNay favored over more conventionally appealing Impressionist artists. An accomplished watercolorist, McNay also amassed a strong collection of watercolors by artists such as Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Maurice Prendergast, John Marin, and Boyer Gonzales, Jr. During the 1930s McNay was an active participant in the artists' colonies in New Mexico, and she developed a collection of textiles, furniture, pottery, jewelry, and paintings from that area. McNay's lack of interest in sculpture, graphic arts, and certain schools of modern painting such as Fauvism and Surrealism left significant gaps typical of private art collections.

The Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute opened to the public in November 1954. Founding director John Palmer Leeper determined to fill the lacunae in McNay's collection and broaden its scope, an initiative supported over the years by substantial donations from local collectors. In 1955 Lucille (Joske) and Frederic G. Oppenheimer presented a distinguished collection of Medieval and Gothic art that included gilded wooden figures, stone sculptures, tapestries, examples of early stained glass, and several major panel paintings. In 1963 the McNay received fifteen works from the collection of Thomas Baker Slick, Jr., notably several monumental sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and major paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe and Pablo Picasso. The institute's representation of twentieth-century art was enriched, particularly in sculpture, by the 1973 gift from Sylvan and Mary Lang of sixty-two works that included sculptures by Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, and Alberto Giacometti. Emily Wells Brown began the museum's print collection in 1960 with gifts of lithographs by Paul Cézanne and Edvard Munch; subsequent gifts by Robert L. B. Tobin, Margaret Lynn Batts Tobin, and the Friends of the McNay, a support group formed in 1959, have developed the collection into one of the Southwest's most outstanding graphic arts collections, with important examples by Francisco Goya, Mary Cassatt, Eugène Delacroix, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. The institute's name was changed to Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in 1983, and it became one of the most important theater research centers in America in 1984, when Robert L. B. Tobin donated his collection, which includes 8,000 volumes, 3,000 of which are books on theater arts; the collection also includes objects related to the theater, such as paintings, drawings, maquettes, and costume and stage designs by Léon Bakst, Aleksandr Benois, Natalya Goncharova, Robert Edmond Jones, Robert Indiana, and Eugene Berman. In 1979 Stella Cook Herff established a purchase fund for acquisitions, which was supplemented in 1988 by endowments from Helen Miller Jones and the estate of Alvin Whitley. By 1992 the museum had more than 5,000 objects in its permanent collection.

Over the years the McNay has added to its original facility, to accommodate both its growing collection and its various services to the public. The Emily Wells Brown Wing, completed in 1970, added a sculpture pavilion, an auditorium, offices, and a library. During the 1970s Sylvan and Mary Lang and Jack and Adele Frost funded additional galleries, and Marcia Marriner Koehler donated money for the Marcia and Otto Koehler Fountain, which graces the entrance to the museum. The Tobin Wing-which houses the Robert L. B. Tobin Collection and the museum library of more than 25,000 volumes-opened in 1984. The accessibility of the museum collection was enhanced by the 1982 completion of the Jerry Lawson Print Gallery, which allowed scholars access to the print collection, and by the 1987 addition of the Jane and Arthur Stieren Wing, which includes a storage area where individuals, by appointment, may study works of art not on permanent display. With the addition of the Blanche and John Leeper Auditorium, completed in the early 1990s, the museum facility measured more than 64,000 square feet.

The McNay Art Museum presents an average of ten exhibitions a year, which cover a broad spectrum, with a certain number of shows each season devoted to artists represented in the museum collection. The McNay has a long tradition of supporting regional artists, organizing solo exhibitions for such artists as Consuelo (Chelo) González Amezcua (1968), Dorothy Hood (1978), Robert Willson (1981), and Haydn Larson (1988). The museum has also curated group exhibitions such as The McNay and the Texas Artist (1988). The McNay has also supported women artists, organizing American Artists '76: A Celebration (1976), a group exhibition of fifty-six contemporary women artists, and The Artist and the Quilt (1983), a collaboration between eighteen American women artists and sixteen American quilters. The museum has organized a number of important exhibitions drawing on materials in the Jerry Lawson Print Gallery and the Robert L. B. Tobin Collection. Since 1986 the Tobin Wing has held an annual scholarly theater symposium that features guest panelists in the vanguard of theater arts. Other educational activities offered by the museum include lecture series, gallery talks, tours, and concerts. The San Antonio Art Institute has been housed on McNay's estate since 1943.

In her will McNay named seven trustees, who formed a self-perpetuating board; in 1988 the board expanded to include up to six additional trustees elected to four-year terms. John Palmer Leeper served as museum director until his retirement in April 1991. He was succeeded by William J. Chiego, who led a staff of twenty-eight in 1992. The museum is funded by endowment, memberships, and private gifts and receives grants from organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts in support of special projects. The budget was $1.6 million in 1992, and museum attendance in the early 1990s averaged 100,000 visitors a year. The McNay was accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1971 and reaccredited in 1984 and is a member of the American Association of Museums and the Texas Association of Museums.

The Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute: Selective Catalogue (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1980).


  • Museums, Libraries, and Archives
  • Museums
  • Art Museums
  • Visual Arts
  • Education

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ellen Sawyer, “Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 17, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 30, 2019