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  My Eye
Sarasota's Ringling Museum:
Send in the Clowns

by Thomas Hoving
The gardens at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla.
  May 10th: Well, they went ahead and actually did it -- turned over the control of the glorious Ringling Museum to Florida State University. As Secretary of State of Florida, Katherine Harris, said recently, "an extraordinary asset . . . is going to virtually disappear under a university mantle."

I agree. This is a very sad day for Florida, for Sarasota and the art world.

Not long ago I went to Sarasota to give my set speech. The one that opens with:

"Sometime around April Fool's Day, 1967, I vaulted out of my City of New York limo (which was available to me seven days a week as Parks Commissioner of the city -- oh, did I love that limo!) and dashed up the narrow, precipitous steps of the awesome Metropolitan Museum, through the tacky gray wooden entrance known as the Dog House, built temporarily in the 1940s but still there, into the dingy Great Hall with stones blackened from old coal furnaces, and said to myself, 'There're gonna be some changes made in this joint!'

"I was 36 years of age. It was my first day on the job as the seventh director of the mighty Met. I had been hired by a small band of trustees who recognized that the museum was deteriorating, had lost audience, was failing to keep up with the times -- was slowly seeping down the drain.

"The revolution that those dedicated trustees asked me and my band of radicals to carry out shook the art world then and still does so today. The program was simple. Hand the Met back to its rightful owners -- the people. Refurbish it inside and out. Expand it. Snap up the last collections that were floating around. Complete the vast encyclopedia of art -- virtually the only one on earth with something of every civilization. Put on the most exciting special exhibitions in the world. Make the museum the number one tourist attraction in NYC, beating the Lady in the Harbor and Rockefeller Center. And we did!"

The first question in the always amusing Q & A was, "What do you think of our Ringling Museum down here, I mean through the eyes of the former Met director?"

Whatta soft ball!

"I love the place and it's never looked better," I said, "although I know something about its grave financial woes and the behind-the-scene political mess surrounding the takeover of the grand old place and I hope you help settle its current turmoil because it's too grand an institution to be in turmoil.

"Yesterday, I was there for hours, getting a pro's tour with the curator of old master paintings, Mitchell Merling. We careened through the newly renovated galleries, the conservation studio and the storage chambers where I was shown some lovely paintings that some day will hopefully be exhibited. And I think the galleries look stunning. I had forgotten how many triumphant old masters the Ringling has -- some of them the Met would kill to get its hands on, especially the grand painted cartoons by Peter Paul Rubens. Going there, I swear, was like taking esthetic Viagra -- really got the art juices moving up and up."

It wasn't blah-blah boosterism. I meant it.

I have known about the history of the John and Mabel Ringling Museum and its exceptional 18th-century theater from Asolo for years. How the circus maestro embarked upon his goal in the early 1920s to mount a parade of the great periods in European history from the late Middle Ages to the end of the Enlightenment. How Ringling succeeded largely by recruiting the seasoned Munich art dealer Julius Boehler as his roaming chief acquisitor (thankfully before Boehler became a bigtime purveyor of art to Hitler and the top Nazi hierarchy.) [click here for a view of the Ringling's gallery of cartoons by Peter Paul Rubens for Triumph of the Eucharist] How Ringling went bust in 1929 and gave his collections and the charming "Renaissance Palazzo" to the State of Florida. How the "museum wizard" of the 40s and 50s, Everett "Chick" Austin, wondrously protected and enhanced the magical "period-room" installation John Ringling -- and the public -- so cherished. How the place became world famous for its Baroque masters and its special exhibitions.

I also know how the beloved institution crashed in the late 1980s.This happened shortly after hard-charging, ambitious director Larry Ruggiero, believing that the musee-d'ambiance-cluttered "look" was hokey, introduced what he argued was a clean and modern "masterpiece installation." Which turned out to be the kind of decor normally seen in hospital corridors. [the old musée d'ambiance look] All the lively architectural embellishment was removed from the galleries (and carefully saved, to Ruggiero's credit), walls were painted a bland light-blue, decorative arts were sequestered to their own galleries, and paintings were hung as far apart from each other as possible so you could tell they were masterpieces.

Ruggiero vanished along with 28 staff members in the wake of a political witch hunt instigated by state senator Bob Johnson, a man who seems to have held the Ringling in extreme contempt -- exactly why is unclear. As the current state chief of cultural affairs, secretary of state Katherine Harris, recently gabbed to the museum's board, "The senator ... cut the museum by 35 percent... The reason the museum is in as much trouble today, is he cut the museum by 35 percent or 33 percent, brought in the legislature for an audit, pulled the museum to its knees. It didn't even function for a number of months with all the auditors crawling all over it, and all they found was a $35 Federal Express thing that had been charged to the museum instead of to the director personally."

Broke, dishevelled and discouraged, the Ringling in 1992 hired David Ebitz as its new director. He has manfully tried to raise funds to patch the place together. He has initiated an architectural master plan for the various elements of the Ringling -- the art museum, the circus museum and the Asolo theater -- and is now negotiating to hand over the art museum and the Asolo theater to Florida State University in the hope that that institution might be able solve its ongoing state-funds starvation.

Ebitz did have the good sense to hire a staff member who has virtually turned the Ringling around and has made it graceful, joyful and dynamic once again. This is Mitchell Merling, a late-30-something bouncy tyro, whose breezy outward manner disguises the straight-laced, Ph.d-eed scholar and connoisseur that he really is. [portrait of Mitchel Merling from the Sarasota News]

Coming out of Montreal and before that Washington's National Gallery (an august institution he left in part because he considered the intellectual level too low) and charged with making the galleries look good again, Merling swept through the Ringling like some benevolent, artistic hurricane. He's brought hosts of works out of storage, dumped the clinical look, painted the galleries in velvety colors of crimson, purple, lime-green and chocolate-brown and decked two out with fabrics closely resembling those in Old Master paintings. [view of the Ringling's new installation] He mixed up triple-hanged pictures, furniture and decorative arts to produce a series of brilliantly evocative and appropriately moody environments.

It took him less than a year to refurbish 20 galleries and he spent -- guess how much? -- less than $100,000. He regaled me with tales of hustling "giant grants" of $5,000 to $10,000 for fabric and buckets of paint. All this in the day of excessive museum spending ($75 million for the Met's Greek and Roman galleries; maybe $500 million for MoMA's new headquarters).

One of Merling's guiding principles was to create a deliberate clutter of objects to show "the complexity of the numerous lives of these works." About the five huge oil cartoons for a tapestry series on the Triumph of the Eucharist he says, "They were first in the Brussels palace of Rubens' Spanish patroness, Isabella Clara. They found their way to Dorchester House in England, and eventually to the Ringling. I don't think my task is just to help people understand Rubens, but to understand the life of these paintings -- from a royal Spanish collection to an aristocratic English collection to a circus millionaire's museum in Florida, a place where there was no European culture per se. The galleries aren't here for visitors to just admire the individual paintings; they're here for the paintings to be grouped in ensembles in a way that works with their own internal narratives."

Last January Merling, in an interview by Sarasota News art correspondent Kay Kimble, spoke about some of his galleries:

Gallery 3. "This gallery recalls the spirit in which it was first installed by Ringling back in 1926," says Merling. "Prior to the reinstallation, it had seven paintings; now it has 35 to 40 from our Northern Renaissance collection. I've hung Madonna with Cherries, after Quentin Masys, near Russian icons of the Madonna and Child, for contrast. And I've also surrounded it by other episodes in the life of Christ, like a relief that shows Mary collapsing at His death. The combination shows the human relationship. The Cranach painting [Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome] is still here; I found a carved chandelier that the first director of the museum, Everett "Chick" Austin, had bought and hung it over the painting, as an echo of the one resembling it in the painting."

Gallery 8. "The walls here will be covered with red brocade. Sasso Ferrato's portrait of a Catholic cardinal will hang in the middle, like it's his house; and he'll be surrounded by works that would have been in a cardinal's house."

Gallery 16. A circus room. Hanging here are many of the harlequin paintings theatergoers will remember from the old Asolo. "We'll be getting cases of circus-themed prints in here; that's appropriate, because this room is a tribute to Austin, who liked the circus, as well as Ringling."

Galleries 19 and 20 (the Astor Rooms). A huge painting by Alfred Stevens welcomes visitors into the 19th-century salon (other paintings of that era will be alternated). "We're also putting antiquities here, because the 19th century was very concerned with classical antiquity. Interestingly enough, we found out that the architect of these rooms, Richard Morris Hunt, was involved in the original installation of the Cesnola collection of antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum in New York -- some pieces of which now reside at the Ringling."

The surprising result of Merling's inspired and colorful clutter is that the masterpieces stand out on their own rather than having to be thrust at the visitor. My favorites are:

* The Velazquez portrait of Philip IV.

* The imposing Thomas Gainsborough monumental equestrian portrait of Lieutenant General Philip Honywood (1765).

* Nicholas Poussin's small and radiant Ecstasy of Saint Paul of 1643.

* The moonlit landscape by Joseph Wright of Derby of 1785.

He sums up his fabulous doings: "I hope it's a hanging that will evolve. Who knows what acquisitions we may get? The collection could change. But I want to get as much stuff out as possible; I love having a lot of stuff. And I want to make the experience interesting and accessible to people. This museum will be fun."

But will the Ringling future be any fun at all?

The Florida Senate's president John McKay, a Republican, has prepared an amendment, widely expected to become law, that will throw out the museum's board of trustees and hand the museum over to Florida State University. About this, Secretary of State Katherine Harris told the board members in her Talahassee offices in a discussion she didn't know was being taped, "You have an extraordinary asset that is going to virtually disappear under a university mantle. I think it is extremely disappointing... You can talk to the University of Florida or any other museum that is owned by a state university, and they've ... and they've all said it will destroy the museum."

Harris explained to the trustees (as revealed by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's staff writer Michael Pollick) that she planned to keep quiet about McKay's intentions and that despite her grave reservations about the FSU takeover, she won't fight the powerful incoming Senate president. They are in the same party. She admitted she wasn't the best kind of trustee.

"I'm happy to use myself as a bad example," she said, "at 27 or 28, when I've never raised a dime in my life for anything. My family had never given to culture, nor will they, they couldn't even spell it. I was a horrible appointee and yet the governor put me on the board of trustees … And that simply didn't make sense … You have an extraordinary asset that is going to virtually disappear under a university mantle. I think it is extremely disappointing. I am not fighting McKay on it."

Who knows if Harris is right or wrong about FSU taking over the Ringling? The scheme could work. The museum desperately needs funds and staff and maybe the university can help out. Yet, experience shows that despite good intentions, loading another entity into a bureaucratic hierarchy has never benefited an art museum. Before the merger comes a done deal perhaps a quick study ought to be undertaken on ways to raise endowment revenues, including a look at possible creative uses of land owned by the museum complex.

Poor Katherine Harris -- she seems to be cursed by her involvement with the Ringling -- for as the AP reported recently, "A valuable painting by a 17th-century Dutch master on loan from the Ringling Museum to the Florida Secretary of State's Office was damaged while hanging in a relatively uncontrolled climate…. The painting, Venus and Cupid at the Forge of Vulcan by the studio of Jan Bruegel the Elder, suffered flaking paint... The museum took back the $500,000 painting from Katherine Harris' private office for repairs. It loaned her office yet another Bruegel and renewed the loans of 14 other works to the office."

Maybe the Ringling should cancel such useless loans.

Unless, of course, Katherine Harris decides to fight Boss McKay and establishes an independent bunch of professionals to look the Ringling prospects over.

The Ringling Museum
THOMAS HOVING is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.