24 January 2024
The Ringling News
The Inaugural Eleanor Merritt Fellow Reflects on a Legacy that Pioneered a Path for Women in the Arts
By Jevon Brown
Walking along the path to the Tibbals Learning Center and Circus Museum from the other side of campus, I’m heading up to the second floor of the building. Here, in The Ringling Archives, I have my own table where I regularly sit to study the personal, artistic, and institutional documents of Eleanor Merritt (1933-2019), a prolific artist, art educator, and The Ringling’s first African American docent and board member.
As an artist at the inaugural Eleanor Merritt Fellow at The Ringling, which began in August 2023, I have decided to spend a portion of my time here studying the impact of Merritt’s contributions in the art world, the Sarasota arts community, and The Ringling. My own work, especially the Barbershop Collage Series, features installations that represent spaces that bridge community connections. So, I’m interested in her focus, not only on her own artistic practice, but also how she supported communities.
The first thing I noticed when I began sifting through her archives was the level of skill and organization, she had for maintaining documentation. The records are made up of exhibition guides, photos, lesson plans, newspaper clippings, artist directories, and letters—all in pristine condition. They have been organized by subject into folders that sit in grey archival boxes. The level of detail in her notes—mostly on legal pad or printed committee meeting schedules—is equally impressive. From the thorough notes she took during art committee meetings to her abstract spiritual paintings, she was clearly able to thrive in both linear and creative modes of thinking.
Honored with national awards for her progressive initiatives in the arts, her commitment to elevating women in the field was unwavering. Her Women of Color Slide Project not only showcased the talent of young women but also played a pivotal role in launching and amplifying their careers. The initiative garnered recognition and the Women’s Caucus of Art honored her with a National President’s Award in 1996 and, later, a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
As a board member for The Ringling, she was involved in a historical moment of vital restructuring for The Ringling. Correspondence with the Sarasota County Public Art Committee shows the consistent effort she made to enrich the lives of people in the community through several public art initiatives. As chair of the committee, she dedicated countless hours to ensure equitable representation within those spaces.
The materials that I’ve been looking through reveal the way her grace and passion laid ground for the recognition of a larger lineage of Black women artists. Those who, despite their excellence in training and technique, have often been relegated to the sidelines. If we follow artists from the early twentieth century to today, those such as Elizabeth Catlett (who inspired Merritt), Faith Ringold (Merritt’s contemporary), and Shinique Smith (whose exhibition Parade is on view in The Ringling’s original 21 galleries), we see her work as integral within this lineage.
After Merritt’s passing in 2019, Executive Director Steven High curated the exhibition Remembrance in 2022 in partnership with the Merritt estate to honor her contributions as an artist and educator. The exhibition and the records show that, for her, being an artist, educator, advocate, and administrator was intertwined. The importance she placed on having inclusive excellence in museum leadership is as clear in her legacy as it is in her archives.
Walking back to my desk in the education building, I pass through the Museum of Art galleries where Shinique Smith’s exhibition Parade is on view. I feel a sense of celebration for how far institutions have come, for the space and recognition given to artists of color. How much we are all enriched when reflecting on and amplifying the narratives and intergenerational influences of Black women artists. Merritt’s efforts as a cultural leader broke through a glass ceiling and her solo exhibition—a resounding success—set a precedent, opening the doors for artists like Shinique Smith and countless others who will follow.
The Merritt Fellowship is a career-pipeline opportunity named to honor Eleanor Merritt (1933-2019) and is intended to develop cultural heritage leaders. On a 9 to 12-month visiting A&P appointment (Administrative & Professional), the Merritt Fellow works under the supervision of the Associate Director of Academic Affairs and Collections to learn, conduct research, and complete arts administration projects supporting The Ringling’s Strategic Plan. Learn more here.