Ringling Names Steven High as New Director

By Megan McDonald March 28, 2011

After an extended search, Ringling names new director

Steven High, Ringling's new executive director.

The search took a little longer than expected, and required some gentle arm-twisting.  But the extra effort was worth it, say Ringling Museum of Art officials,who are confident they have  found the right leader to bring the institution to even greater prominence. 

Steven High, the CEO of Savannah’ s Telfair Museums, was introduced last week as the Ringling’s new executive director.  On June 1, he will succeed Marshall Rousseau, who has served as interim director since John Wetenhall resigned in August 2009.

High was not one of a handful of finalists identified by a Ringling search committee late last year. In fact, he was so content with  his position in Savannah that he didn’t even apply.  But after some board members recommended that the search be extended, High was invited down for an interview.

“His name kept coming up during our deliberations,” said Cliff Walters, the head of the search committee. “People would tell us we need someone like Stephen High. So we finally approached him.”

High’s background as an art scholar and a curator as well as a museum leader appealed to the officials at Ringling and Florida State University, which operates the museum.  Another strength was that Telfair, like the Ringling, is a museum complex made up of several different elements.

The  trim, 54-year-old High was affable and unpretentious during a brief meeting with the press. “Is it OK if I don’t stand behind the podium and do this more informally?” he said, before asking the journalists their names and affiliations.

Since 2007, High has been CEO at Telfair, which has a staff of 90 and a $5.2 million budget  (less than half of Ringling’s). Known  for his community outreach, he was  also chairman of the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau.  Leaving was a hard decision, he said. “But this was a great opportunity that  I just couldn’t turn down.”

Previously, High was director/CEO at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno for 10 years.  He holds a masters degree in art history from Williams College in Massachusetts, and a bachelor’s degree in art history from Antioch College in Ohio. He also has an MBA from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Since 1986, he has curated more than 40 exhibitions, most dealing with contemporary art. That might seem like an odd focus for the new leader of the Ringling, which is renowned for its Baroque and Old Masters collections. But the Ringling has been putting more of an emphasis on its contemporary holdings lately. Later this year, it will complete construction of  a major contemporary piece, the James Turrell Sky Space.

High said he is pleased that a new contemporary museum, the Sarasota Museum of Art, is scheduled to open in the next few years in the former Sarasota High School building. “That’s very exciting, and I hope we can find ways to collaborate with them,” he said. “My whole career has been about creating linkages and partnerships.”

High said he couldn’t be coming to the Ringling at a better time, with the Turrell piece and an addition to the circus museum scheduled to open this year, and the Ringling International Arts Festival attracting national attention.

He said the museum offers “the best of both worlds” because it is connected to the Sarasota community yet also can draw on the support and resources of FSU. He isn’t daunted by the state’s budget challenges, saying “it’s the same story in every state.”

High will focus immediately “on making sure we are using our resources in the most effective way to generate earned income.” And he won’t be shy about asking for donations.

“I see myself as the chief development officer,” High said. “If we’re going to ask people for a gift, then they need to speak to the person who is going to be spending it.”

Celebrating Weidner and Sarasota Ballet

Jean Weidner was center stage at the Sarasota Ballet’s 20th anniversary gala on Friday – and I mean that literally.

Weidner, the company’s founder and a former dancer with Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet, performed a few fluid steps in the evening’s dramatic opening piece, an excerpt from Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.

Dressed in a brown gown flecked with gold, Weidner drew gasps and cheers from a surprised capacity audience when she strode onto the Mertz Theatre stage with the rest of the company members, who were similarly attired in evening wear.  “She looks as glamorous as Grace Kelly,” one impressed onlooker said.

The evening was designed as a tribute to Weidner and to a company that has made impressive strides in the last few years. Its “renaissance,” as Weidner called it, was in full display in the eight pieces performed during the hour-long program. In a nice touch,  two stars from the past, Diane Partington and Alexei Dovgopolyi, were invited back to perform a new pas de deux by company member Jamie Carter.

Artistic director Iain Webb’s often amusing, sometimes poignant, introductions threaded the pieces together. At one point, he referred ever so briefly to controversies that have dogged the company in the past. “There have been some bridges burned around here. I’ve probably burned a few myself,” he said. “But this is a night to look forward.”

References to Hollywood’s Oscar awards ceremonies became a running joke in Webb’s commentary.  But this celebratory evening had the Oscars beat in several ways: It was classier, far more entertaining, and much faster-paced!

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