When Franci Neely considers what artistic or cultural initiatives to support, she always takes into account the impact of the work on the lives of others. Whether it’s showcasing art and artists of the Islamic worlds or empowering local filmmakers, the Houston-based philanthropist wants to support consequential projects.
Neely, a retired corporate attorney, world traveler, and accomplished photographer, sees the opportunity to support meaningful artistic and cultural causes as both a privilege and an obligation.
“I view it as almost a moral obligation when one has been fortunate, and I have been fortunate in terms of money,” Neely says. “Money can’t buy you love, but it can give you an ability to ideally improve things. So that’s really the impetus that it is important to me, to do that in meaningful ways.”
Franci Neely makes that search for meaning clear in all her philanthropic efforts. She often focuses on the idea of introducing people to artistic works and cultural traditions from parts of the world other than their own, or in supporting a cause that means a great deal to a diverse group of people. Here are a few of the efforts that are near and dear to her heart.
Franci Neely Is a Longtime Supporter of Hermann Park
It’s difficult to exaggerate the importance of Hermann Park in the lives of Houstonians. The grounds offer lush landscapes, walking and running trails, a train ride and pedal boats, and the McGovern Centennial Gardens, as well as beautiful photo op spots for tourists, high school graduates, and quinceañera parties.
Neely served on the Hermann Park Conservancy, formed in 1992 to help restore the space, parts of which were in decline at the time. Under the stewardship of the conservancy, the park has flourished.
Neely also supported the Art in the Park displays at the Hermann Park Centennial in March 2022. She contributed $250,000 to the conservancy in the names of her grandchildren. The donation will help fund The Bayou, a water feature for children, and a 26-acre green space called The Commons.
“It is an artery that means a lot to many different types of people,” Franci Neely said of Hermann Park. “Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. And any given day, you can see that epitomized in Hermann Park. So that’s why I’m so happy to be a supporter of that beloved green space.”
It’s telling that Neely mentioned diversity and inclusion in relation to her support of the park, as that’s an issue that runs throughout her volunteer work.
Franci Neely Helped Found the Houston Cinema Arts Society
Franci Neely played a key role in the creation of the Houston Cinema Arts Society, which focuses on supporting local and regional filmmakers, including those from underrepresented communities. Neely led a task force appointed by then-Mayor Bill White to create the institution, which works year-round to expand Houston’s film culture, as well as make the city a hub for innovation in film and media.
Every November, the society holds the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, a multivenue event that showcases films, innovative video and media installations, and live multimedia performances, as well as offering panel discussions and workshops. Filmmaker Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Boyhood), a Houston native, has judged the festival’s short film competition, CineSpace.
The society also holds quarterly networking events for filmmakers and special screenings throughout the year.
Franci Neely Supports the Islamic Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts
As part of her meaningful volunteer work, Franci Neely serves as co-chair of the Art of the Islamic Worlds collection at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The goal of the museum’s Islamic arts collection is to reflect the regional, chronological, and material diversity of Islamic arts traditions throughout time.
Neely has spent more than 16 years as part of the initiative, collaborating with people in Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Work in this area included forging a partnership with Kuwait-based cultural institution Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah and the privately held al-Sabah Collection, considered one of the greatest collections of Islamic art in the world.
Her appreciation for the Islamic world is easy to see when she speaks about her travels to Iran.
“Iran is one of the places that affected me most deeply because of its incredible people. One of the oldest cultures in the world, the Persian culture, is rich. And the average citizen in Iran probably knows more about their history and their literature, their culture, than the average American,” she says, adding that she was impressed with the hospitality she experienced and surprised to be repeatedly told how much they loved Americans, “not our government, but Americans.”
Franci Neely Serves on The Menil Collection Board of Trustees
Neely is proud to sit on the board of trustees for The Menil Collection, a museum in Houston that’s free to the public. The museum operates with the belief that art is essential to the human experience and allows the public to not only visit the museum at no cost but also make use of the surrounding green space.
Neely recently provided major funding for the Art of the Cameroon Grassfields, A Living Heritage in Houston exhibit that celebrates artistic traditions from Cameroon and its global diaspora. The presentation covers two galleries. One space shows more than 20 historical works from The Menil Collection, including headdresses, masks, prestige hats, and palace architectural elements from several Cameroon grassfields kingdoms. The other features two recent artworks by contemporary Cameroonian artist Hervé Youmbi.
It’s yet another effort that shows Neely’s commitment to exposing as many people as possible to the works of artists worldwide. These endeavors are just some of the many places she focuses her philanthropic efforts.
“I’m lucky and I want to make something of it and give back,” Neely says. “What’s my time on Earth if not to give back in some way? I don’t want an epitaph that says, ‘She wasn’t a drain on society.’ I want one that says, ‘She wanted to give back to society.’”