By Matthew McClendon
When I was hired as curator of modern and contemporary art at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 2010, I felt that mix of excitement and apprehension one experiences when making a major life change. Being a native Floridian, I knew I would be fine living in Sarasota. I hadn't spent any real time here since I was a child, but palm trees and flamingos are in my blood. Those first weeks, I’d sit on my back patio in the evenings, relaxing with a gin and tonic under a stately date palm tree. A perfect gentle breeze seemed to always be rolling off the Gulf. This was a different Florida, a more tropical Florida than the one I knew as a child in the northern part of the state. My love for Sarasota began then, in those quiet evenings on my patio, but I still wondered about how my plans for bringing contemporary art to The Ringling would be received. This is, after all, the home of Rubens.
My first installation of 20th-century abstraction was enthusiastically received, but that was mid-century work, not particularly threatening. I worried about how my first truly contemporary project would be met. The project was anything but the museum’s usual fare. Called Beyond Bling: Voices of Hip-Hop in Art, it examined hip-hop's continuing influence on contemporary art. Would anyone come to the opening? And would people think we’d gone too far with this show?
Within the first few minutes of the night of the opening, I realized I had a lot to learn about Sarasota. People ranging in age from their early 20s to their late 80s crowded into the museum—1,200 in all. They lingered around the customized cars with booming bass in front of the museum, admired the iPad graffiti on the side of the galleries and danced in the courtyard. The atmosphere was electric. Then, as a complete surprise, the members of the Rennie Harris Dance Company who had just performed in the Historic Asolo Theater joined the celebration and started breakdancing in the shadow of the statue of David. I felt so embraced and supported by a town that could celebrate the Renaissance and hip-hop without the slightest feeling of incongruity. At that moment, my love for Sarasota was cemented.
Matthew McClendon is curator of modern and contemporary art at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.