Maestro of the Museum

By Kay Kipling August 1, 2010

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art bears the name of its founders; and there’s certainly no reason to downplay the role of the man who, with the support of his beloved wife, built this symbol of Sarasota and the collection it holds. But when it comes to examining who helped determine the way the museum, as a world-famous attraction, looks and works today, it may fairly be said that one other man played just as important a role: the Ringling’s first director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin.

Austin, who died more than 50 years ago at the age of 56, was, it seems, a flame that burned brightly if too briefly. Charismatic, endlessly energetic, well-read and well-traveled, with a remarkable eye for art and a talent for making the right connections, he was in many ways the very model of a museum director. A true Renaissance man, he had a passionate love and aptitude not only for the visual arts but for theater, music, dance, cooking, entertaining, magic, the circus—you name it.

By the time Austin came to the Ringling Museum, in 1946, he had already made an international name for himself as the director for 17 years of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. Hired for that job at the tender age of just 26, thanks largely to his mentor, Edward W. Forbes (director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum), Chick (an early nickname that stuck) was soon bringing to that conservative institution shows of modern art by the likes of Picasso, Mondrian, Dali and Max Ernst. (Bear in mind, to most Americans of the 1930s, these were new and revolutionary artists.)

Not content merely to present art exhibitions, however, Chick also threw himself into the performing arts world. The world premiere of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson, libretto by Gertrude Stein, and an all-black cast, took place at the Atheneum’s Avery Memorial Building (designed largely by Chick himself, and believed to be the first theater inside a museum building in the country). After founding a group called The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music in 1928, Chick was instrumental in premiering new works by composers including Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives in Hartford. Through a friendship with impresario Lincoln Kirstein, Austin was also largely responsible for bringing to America for the first time legendary choreographer George Balanchine (he hoped to house Balanchine’s new school of ballet in Hartford, but eventually lost out to New York City).

When time permitted, Chick even took to the stage himself, playing Hamlet, among other roles, and he dabbled in set design in Hollywood. And he and his wife, Helen, were famous for the parties they threw at their Hartford home—a Palladio-inspired Austin design, now open to the public, that resembled a stage set in its long horizontal facade.

But by 1944, Austin had pushed his limits—and his luck—with the trustees at the Atheneum as far as he could, and his personal life was in flux. Although devoted to his wife and an affectionate father to his two children, Chick, a bisexual, had long lived a life separate from them as well. He was, perhaps, ready for a change from Hartford and home life. “The Great Osram,” as Chick dubbed himself when performing magic shows, was now ready to work some magic on the Ringling Museum—which stood in dire need of his transformative powers.

In 1946, when Austin came to Sarasota to assume his new role (a role for which his old friend Forbes suggested him), the Ringling was not, as his biographer Eugene Gaddis puts it in his book, Magician of the Modern, “the pristine temple of art that John Ringling had completed in 1930.” Following Ringling’s death in 1936, long legal battles had kept the museum both closed to the public (even though Ringling had left the property to the State of Florida) and, eventually, in a perilous state of decay. In the humid tropical climate, the grounds were wildly overgrown, and John and Mable’s magnificent house, Cà d’Zan, after being closed for a decade, had fallen prey to mold, mildew, insects and general deterioration. Ringling’s prized art collection was in danger from the lack of environmental control; when it rained, water reportedly ran down the gallery walls.

Just restoring the buildings and grounds presented a formidable challenge. But remarkably, right from the beginning, Austin was determined not only to stabilize the museum and reopen it to the public as quickly as possible, but to place the Ringling in the forefront of art museums in the nation. Perhaps no other man could have envisioned that when confronted by a decaying group of buildings on a tangled jungle in the hinterlands of little Sarasota, Fla.

“I think we were tremendously fortunate when the governor and the board of control [of the state of Florida] picked Chick Austin as our first director,” says Deborah Walk, curator of the Ringling’s Circus Museum and historical archives. Austin’s vision and concern were not just for the art collection and museum, she says. “He instantly saw the opportunity to put a circus museum [the first of its kind] on the grounds. That was revolutionary. As John Ringling had before him, with opening the circus’ winter quarters to the public, Austin saw that people would want to come, and pay, to see the circus” in this way—and to see the Ringling mansion (which he had reopened within six months of his arrival, frequently cutting and stitching brocade for wall hangings on his portable Singer) as well.

Ringling associate curator of modern and contemporary art Matthew McLendon agrees. “Chick is seen as a very transformative figure in museum practice,” he says. At a time when museums were focused on a single topic only, Austin had the genius to “bring together the high and the low,” as McLendon says it would then have been considered—the “high” of the art collection, the “low” of the circus. “It was the modern spirit that he brought here,” McLendon says. “When I decided to come to the Ringling, so many of my modern and contemporary colleagues said to me, ‘Chick Austin was my hero.’ And for me personally, because I trained as a musician and a singer early on, Chick’s love for the performing arts was so important.”

That love, of course, was clear with one of Austin’s biggest and most appreciated contributions to the Ringling: the purchase of the original 18th-century Asolo Theater from Italy. Chick, an inveterate traveler, had seen the tiny jewel-like building on a trip abroad as early as the 1930s and long coveted it. In 1952 he was at last able to acquire it (for the bargain price of $8,000) and have it installed within the museum’s galleries. He inaugurated its long history of performances here with Mozart’s Bastien et Bastienne (of course he designed the sets and costumes himself) and Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona (with sets and costumes by esteemed opera designer Eugene Berman). The response of the opening night crowd was overwhelming, and the Sarasota press declared that the opening of the Asolo “leaves no doubt in one’s mind concerning the genius of A. Everett Austin Jr….it was by all odds the most artistic, most interesting and most colorful gala night in the history of Florida as well as Sarasota.”

While opening the circus museum (in 1948) and bringing live theater of a professional caliber to Sarasota, Chick did not neglect his duties to the art collection. “There’s one thing that all great museum directors have,” says Walk. “They love the stuff [the art]. They get so excited about it. I was walking through the museum the other day and stopped at the Rubens portrait of the Archduke Ferdinand, the first piece Chick acquired for the Ringling, and I just went ‘Whoa!’ It’s such a beautiful painting.” Austin also acquired a painting by Bernardo Strozzi, a series of 15 decorative paintings depicting the disguises of Harlequin (the character from commedia dell’arte, which Chick loved), and a fresco converted to canvas by Tiepolo called Glory and Magnanimity of Princes, which became a treasure of the collection, among other buys.

And, Walk says, it’s fascinating to pore over the archives and discover the telegrams Austin sent to his wealthy collector friends in order to put together a groundbreaking exhibition of 20th-century art here in Sarasota (another first for Florida). As compared to today’s more formalized museum world, where exhibitions may be planned years in advance, it all seems so casual.

“He would send a telegram to someone he knew and say, ‘Oh, by the way, can you pack up that Picasso and send it to Sarasota?’” Walk marvels. “The people he brought to Florida…there’s a wonderful photo on the JoMar [the Ringlings’ railway car] of the two North boys [Ringling relatives] with Chick and Bette Davis and her husband [artist William Grant Sherry]. He had dinner here with Cecil B. DeMille. The symposiums he presented brought a Who’s Who of the art world here: Horst Janson [whose History of Art became a staple for generations of art students], [architectural historian] Henry Russell Hitchcock, [New York art dealer] Julien Levy, [curator and later Fogg Museum director] Agnes Mongan. And he started art classes for the first time at the Ringling” with such soon-to-be prominent Sarasota artists as Syd Solomon and Craig Rubadoux on the faculty list.

Here as in Hartford, Chick continued to entertain guests including Dame Edith and Sir Osbert Sitwell, Dorothy Lamour and Gypsy Rose Lee in his two-story stucco home on Delmar Avenue in Whitfield Estates, which he adorned with Rococo furniture, crystal chandeliers and faux shell-topped niches. Flamboyant and fun loving, he was, Walk says, “such a presence in Sarasota, always with a cigarette in his mouth and driving his Rolls-Royce.” Perpetually drawn to the stage, he also signed on with the Players of Sarasota theater troupe, playing a role in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit and Maxim de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Amazing though it was that he managed to fit all of these Sarasota activities into a seasonal schedule (he spent summers traveling abroad or attending to the Windham Playhouse in New Hampshire, which he had also established), Chick could still run afoul of the politics of running a museum. In Hartford, it had been the trustees and certain members of the public; in Florida, it was politicos in Tallahassee who disapproved of his spending and, perhaps, his “elite” outsider status. They encouraged a Tampa newspaper to print disparaging articles about his alleged extravagance (this even though Chick received only $9,000 a year in salary here).

But he had his supporters, too. As an editorial in one Sarasota newspaper put it, the Tampa articles were “obviously inspired by the Tallahassee boys who know about as much about art as your goldfish.” And longtime UPI head and prominent Sarasota citizen Karl Bickel, who had quickly befriended Austin when he first arrived in town, was quoted in a newspaper as saying, “We almost had to kidnap Austin to get him to take over the museum, which was dead, like a morgue…Do you want a great art center or a roadside attraction?”

In reality, though, by late 1956, Chick had concerns more pressing than scathing newspaper articles, disturbing though they must have been. He was dealing with severe back pain, and eventually diagnosed with an inoperable cancerous tumor undoubtedly caused by his years of chain smoking. By March of 1957, when Bickel was able to report to him that the tide of local sentiment had turned in his favor, Chick was too ill to even think of returning to Sarasota. He died on March 29 in Hartford.

Fortunately for us, we continue to reap the benefits of his time spent reviving and revitalizing the Ringling Museum in all of its facets. As his friend, the author Sir Osbert Sitwell, declared, “There can never have been a Director of a Museum who had more ideas or more inspirations…The winds of life blew round him and he invested everything with a new passion.”

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