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The Ringling's First Director: Chick Austin's Ringling Legacy

Austin's AcquisitionsDwarf Garden and Former Historic Asolo Theater Building

For The Ringling, “Chick” Austin acquired paintings, prints, drawings watercolors, rare books, scenic and costume renderings, and Venetian furniture for a theater collection. This included fifteen paintings, The Disguises of Harlequin (c. 1740s), later determined to be by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti. These works had belonged to Max Reinhardt, “The greatest German theatrical figure of the twentieth century,” Austin explained to the Board of Control. The paintings had hung in Reinhardt’s castle in Salzburg, and, Austin was excited to discover, Reinhardt had also intended to buy the Asolo Theater.  

from The Disguises of Harlequin, c. 1740s, by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti

In 1954 the Board granted Austin the funds to build the new wing of the Museum to hold the Historic Asolo Theater. They commissioned the well-known Florida architect Marion I. Manley and construction began in July 1955. But sadly, Austin’s health began to fail the following summer. He died of lung cancer in March of 1957.

A Gala Worthy of the Ringlings

Austin’s successor was the curatorial librarian of the Museum, Kenneth Donahue. He was well-acquainted with Austin’s vision for the theater, and set about planning an opening night gala worthy of his inspired predecessor’s dream. However, that dream was expensive, and Donahue had to work around the tight budget he was allotted from the State.

Donahue went to Austin’s close friend Lincoln Kirstein in New York, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, who loaned him the costumes and sets from the New York City Center. Kirstein put Donahue in touch with the conductor Julius Rudel, who promised New York singers “at absolutely minimum rates,” and said, “If you can assemble the best musicians in Florida, I’ll come down and whip them into shape.”

Finally, Donahue invited LIFE Magazine reporter Dorothy Seiberling, whose coverage of the larger-than-life parties of the rich and famous entertained millions of Americans pouring over the pages of the magazine. Seiberling herself directed Donahue in planning an extravagant after-party in the Ca’d’Zan, complete with costumes for each ticket-holder that Donahue borrowed from the circus.

The Historic Asolo Theater seen from stage during a performanceWhen the City of Sarasota learned that their town would appear in LIFE, they opened the city’s checkbook to fund the lavish affair. Following the world-class opera in the glittering jewel of the Historic Asolo Theater, guests were wowed by dancing and costumes in the mansion, and fireworks from a custom-built barge on the bay. It was a party worthy of John and Mable themselves.

A Sarasota Legacy

In the pages of LIFE, all of America saw Sarasota emerge as a center for arts and culture, a feat that although he did not live to see it, was thanks to Chick Austin. From that debut, John Ringling’s vision to make Sarasota the “Art center of the south” flourished, as the theater saw the rise of two other cultural institutions, the Asolo Repertory Theatre and The Sarasota Opera.

Chick Austin dreamed of bringing world-class performing arts to The Ringling, a tradition that has only grown stronger through circus, stage performances, festivals, and avant-garde offerings such as the New Stages performing arts series.

Dwight Currie, the former Curator of Performance at the Ringling said that Chick "made no distinction between the artistry of old masters in a museum and the artistry of performers in a circus arena or onstage.  In Chick’s eyes, it was all magic.  So to an institution already filled with the splendors of European paintings and sculpture, he added a Circus Museum and an 18th-century Italian theater.  I like to think of it as the world’s only magical, three-ring museum of art – a place destined by its history to inspire."

Discover More: Austin Arrives at The Ringling

Discover More: Austin Before Ringling

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