The Ringling's Hunt for a New Director

By Kay Kipling January 13, 2011

At the Ringling Museum of Art, the search for a new director is going back to the drawing board.

Late last year, a search firm identified three finalists for the Ringling position, which became open after John Wetenhall resigned in August 2009. But the museum’s search committee has decided none of the candidates had the right background or experience, so the search will start again. There’s no word yet on whether a new search firm will be involved, as Ringling board member Sandy Rieff has suggested.

Marshall Rousseau, Ringling’s interim director and an ex-officio member of the search committee, says the finalists all had impressive resumes, “but the feeling of the committee was that none was the right match, that it would have been too much of a leap for them to have taken over an institution like this.

“This is a tough, complicated position to fill, because the Ringling is such a multi-faceted institution, encompassing an art museum, a historic house, a circus museum, a theater and extensive grounds. So they have to take the time to get it right.”

The 77-year-old Rousseau, a former board member with vast management experience in both the arts world and the corporate world, doesn’t expect the search to stretch beyond a few more months. But he says he’s happy to stay on “until they find the absolute best person.” And he stresses that the museum is hardly in a holding pattern as the search continues.

In fact, in a recent newsletter to museum members, Rousseau said that the word “interim” doesn’t reflect what has happened during his tenure, as there has been “neither an interruption nor a hiatus in the work being done to advance the mission of this institution.”

Indeed, in the last year, the museum had the most active exhibition schedule in its history, broke ground on an expansion of the circus exhibits in the Tibbals Learning Center and hired a new curator of modern and contemporary art, Matthew McLendon. A major contemporary art installation, the James Turrell Skyspace, will open later this year.

 The second Ringling International Arts Festival was a rousing success, and a new Art After Five program on Thursday nights has attracted new audiences. The museum also launched Art of Our Time, an initiative to bring new art, music, theater and dance to the museum.

A new coffee shop opened on the second floor of the visitors center gift shop (it served 1,200 customers on an exceptionally busy day during the holidays), and a new gift shop is planned for the circus museum.

“I want people to know this place is functioning beautifully, that no one here has missed a beat,” says

Rousseau, whom staffers describe as a hands-on leader who works long hours and has strong opinions, but who is respectful of other views. “He’s gained a lot of admirers during his time here,” one staffer says.

Though he’s a decade past retirement age, Rousseau seems to have boundless energy. In addition to his Ringling responsibilities, he’s an adjunct professor of museum studies at Eckerd College, where he’ll teach two courses in the spring.

When a new Ringling leader is finally chosen, Rousseau says he’ll take satisfaction in turning over “a well-run, well-organized museum. That’s the best I can hope for.”

Meanwhile, he jokingly tells people that his actual title these days is C.O. “That’s because a lot of the mail I get is addressed to ‘Marshall Rousseau or Current Occupant,’” he says, laughing.

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