Arts Capital

By Charlie Huisking February 1, 2010

asset_upload_file311_31025.jpgIt will be several months before a search committee starts looking for candidates for the director’s position at the Ringling Museum of Art. But I’m already hearing buzz about a name that some museum supporters hope is on the short list: Aaron DeGroft.

DeGroft would certainly seem to have the right credentials. Before leaving Ringling in 2005 to become director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, DeGroft was Ringling’s deputy director and chief curator for five years. His responsibilities included overseeing the final stages of the $15 million renovation of the Ringling mansion, Cà d’Zan. In an earlier stint at Ringling, he curated the museum’s 50th anniversary celebration.

DeGroft has a Ph.D. in art history from Florida State University. His specialty is European art from the 15th through the 19th centuries, which just happens to be the strength of the Ringling

collection. He’s currently working on a book that will focus on John Ringling the art collector.

In a recent phone interview, he told me he was happy in his current position at William & Mary, where he earned his undergraduate degree. During his tenure, museum attendance has increased by 50,000, the budget has doubled and membership has quadrupled.

DeGroft says he was flattered to hear that he’s remembered fondly by museum supporters in Sarasota, but he adds that he’s had no discussions with Ringling officials about the director’s position. But would he be interested?  

“Who would not be interested?” he says. “The Ringling is one of the great art museums in America. It has the best Italian Baroque collection outside of Italy. It’s a wonderful place, and it has enormous potential.”

DeGroft says that though he was excited to take the position at William & Mary, he was “heartbroken” to leave Ringling five years ago. He and his family still have many friends here, and he visited in October to attend the inaugural Ringling International Arts Festival, which he called “thrilling.”

The Ringling director’s position became open this summer when John Wetenhall abruptly resigned.  Marshall Rousseau is serving as interim director until the search committee for a new director begins work in late spring or summer.

DeGroft’s connections to FSU, and his admiration for what the university has done at Ringling, could be another factor in his favor. “I had a great relationship with FSU when I was there, and I don’t think people realize sometimes how much the Ringling has benefited because of the involvement of FSU, in terms of new buildings and new programs,” he says.

Doing a lot with less

Like many arts organizations, the Sarasota Ballet slashed its budget this season because of the grim economy. But thanks in part to the international contacts of director Iain Webb, the ballet sure isn’t skimping on the product it’s offering its audiences.

The season opened in November with a gorgeous production of Giselle that featured two renowned guest artists from London’s Royal Ballet, Alina  Cojucaru and Johan Kobberg. The dancers wanted to come to help Sarasota Ballet in a difficult year, says Webb, a former Royal Ballet dancer who has known them for years.

The sumptuous sets and costumes for Giselle were loaned by Japan’s K-Ballet Company, for whom Webb once served as assistant director. Sarasota Ballet only had to pay the shipping costs.

“It’s great that these old friends are expressing their support for me and for what this company is doing,” says Webb, who is in his third year with Sarasota Ballet.

Two of the most-talked-about names in contemporary ballet are also donating works to the company.  British choreographer Matthew Bourne is allowing the ballet to stage two of his works, Boutique and The Infernal Galop, this season. No other company in the world, except for Bourne’s own, has been granted the rights to two of his works.

In April, Sarasota Ballet will perform There Where She Loved, by Christopher Wheeldon, a former Royal Ballet dancer and a former student of Webb’s. A recent New York Times profile of Wheeldon said his wit, imagination and musicality make him probably “the most in-demand choreographer in the world.”

“In times like these, to be able to put on a season that features works by Christopher Wheeldon, Matthew Bourne and Sir Peter Wright [who allowed the company to use his staging of Giselle] is beyond my dreams, “ Webb says.

Despite all the help, the ballet still faces immense challenges, including a sizeable deficit. I’m regularly hearing whispered rumors that the company is in danger of closing. But Webb and Michael Shelton, who was recently hired as a management consultant, say things aren’t that dire.

“The company is here to stay,” Shelton says. “This is a difficult period, as it is for many other organizations. But there are no problems that can’t be fixed. The company probably has relied on too narrow a donor pool. We need to expand that base and get more people excited about what Iain is doing here.”

Webb is particularly eager to find donors to increase the company’s Live Music Endowment Fund, which was established by Ed and Elaine Keating, and which now stands at approximately $550,000. Money from that fund allowed the company to hire an orchestra for Giselle, which added greatly to the magic of the performances.

Most ballet fans I talk to are impressed with Webb’s accomplishments, and with the attention the company is getting. The New York Times rarely sends its critics to review a regional ballet company, so it was quite a coup for Sarasota Ballet to get a rave Times review of a program of works by Sir Frederick Ashton last season.

Some have grumbled, however, that the company hasn’t done enough classical pieces under Webb. Others have complained that Webb hasn’t reprised works by Robert de Warren, the company’s former director.

But Webb says he purposely waited to do classic works like Giselle until he felt the company was at the level to do them properly. And this season, Webb did invite De Warren back to stage his version of The Nutcracker.

“The fact I haven’t done Robert’s works is not a case of disrespect, not at all,” he says. “Robert didn’t bring back works by [his predecessor] Eddy Toussaint, after all. It’s simply that I have my own vision. I came here to do things I feel passionate about.”

Sarasota Ballet will perform Feb. 19-21 at the Mertz Theatre in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. For program and ticket information, go to

Mad About Ringling

By now, it’s old news that graduates of the Ringling College of Art and Design go on to careers with Hollywood’s major animation studios. Ringling alumni have worked on virtually every big animated feature in the past decade, from Toy Story to Up.

But you can enjoy the work of Ringling grads on television, too.  Jeremy Cox, who earned a degree in Graphic & Interactive Communication in 2006, created the cool title sequence for AMC’s hit show Mad Men.

The distinctive sequence features a silhouetted version of the main character, Don Draper, seated at his desk smoking a cigarette (this is the ’60s, after all) and floating through the air from the top of the skyscraper that houses the Sterling Cooper ad agency.

Cox has also done title sequences for films like Charlotte’s Web. “There’s something magical about going into a theater and seeing your work projected on a giant screen for a group of strangers,” he told the Ringling magazine Perspectives.

Top Five

Our editors pick the month's hottest tickets.


It wouldn’t be February in Sarasota without the acclaimed Sarasota Opera’s winter season, which gets under way Feb. 6 with a double-bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci (other opera performances this month include The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel).  Artistic director Victor DeRenzi conducts opening night, of course. For tickets call 366-8450.


Here’s a rare chance to peek inside the home of LPGA star Paula Creamer. The Legends Bay residence in west Bradenton is the site of the Sarasota Orchestra Association’s Designer Showcase, Feb. 13 through March 7.  All 6,500 square feet will be utilized by area designers to show the latest and greatest in trends; special tips and demonstrations every day of the week. Tickets $20; call 953-3434.


Who doesn’t love to see a pug dressed up as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley? It happens every year with the Pug Parade, an event presented by Sarasota Magazine and the Humane Society of Sarasota County (which it benefits) that draws hundreds of doggies and their owners to strut their stuff in hopes of taking home a trophy for best costume and more. Feb. 20 at Lakewood Ranch’s Adventure Park; call 955-4131 ext. 114 or 487-1110.


Florida Studio Theatre brings us the area debut of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. It’s a story of brutalized women coming together at a canteen in the Congo after the horrors of the country’s civil war, but it’s not depressing—although it will be powerful. On the mainstage Feb. 3 through April 3; call 366-9000 for tickets.

evening spent at the Van Wezel

Show Biz

Musical theater junkies know what a treat it is to be entertained by Broadway star Patti LuPone, who’s starred in everything from Evita to Sunset Boulevard to Gypsy. She brings songs from those shows and others to the Van Wezel with Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda!, including tunes she didn’t sing on the Great White Way but would have loved to.  At 8 p.m. Feb. 19. For tickets call 953-3368.

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