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The Ringling's First Director Part One: Chick Austin Arrives at The Ringling

Austin Arrives at The Ringling

Chick Austin with statue of Neptune at The Ringling. Courtesy of Wadsowrth AtheneumA. Everett Austin, known as ‘Chick,’ arrived at The Ringling in 1946 at the invitation of Florida’s governor, Millard Caldwell. Two months earlier there had been a ceremony featuring Caldwell and John Ringling’s sister Ida and her two sons, in which the Ringling estate was turned over to the people of Florida. This had been John Ringling’s wish at the time of his death in 1936, but disputes over the Circus Magnate’s will had left his mansion, museum, and collection in a state of neglect for an entire decade. 

Austin was 45 years old when he became the first director of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. He was renowned as one of the most innovative museum directors in America from his tenure at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, where he had pioneered the integration of the performing and visual arts.

Building the Circus Museum

The Original Circus Museum at The Ringling

The performing arts were likewise brought to the forefront at The Ringling under Austin, beginning with the creation of the Circus Museum. To the Ringling’s garage, Austin designed the addition of a rotunda, with a roof resembling a circus tent, and Corinthian pillars tying the structure’s aesthetic to the Museum of Art. The interior was theatrically decorated with Louis XV-style paneling, painted red and gold. Gathering Ringling circus memorabilia and costumes, props, and posters donated by local circus families, the first museum in America to document the history of the circus opened in 1948.

Detail of Portrait thought to be Caterina Coronaro in the Historic Asolo Theater at The Ringling

Caterina Coronaro was the Queen of Cyprus in the 15th Century, later living in exile in Asolo, Italy

It was a fitting beginning to Austin’s time at the helm of The Ringling to honor the Museum’s founder’s origins in the performing art of Circus. But Austin’s most ambitious project at the Museum landed decidedly center-stage of his personal passions, with the procurement of The Historic Asolo Theater.

Buying the Historic Asolo Theater

“The function of a museum is more than merely showing pictures,” Austin told a Sarasota reporter. “The museum is the place to integrate the arts and bring them alive.” He convinced the Board of Control, the state government body in charge of The Ringling at the time, to purchase an 18th century theater, built to honor the 15th century Queen Cyprus (A portrait that adorns the theater is thought to be of the Italian-born Queen of Cyprus, who lived in exile in Asolo, Italy).

The Historic Asolo Theater as it was installed in Gallery 21 of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Historic Asolo Theater as it was installed in Gallery 21 of the Museum of Art in 1952

The theater belonged to a Venetian antiques dealer who was a personal friend of Austin’s, Adolph Loewi. Loewi had rescued the theater in the 1930s, when it was dismantled to make way for a motion picture theater and discarded from the palace where it was built in 1798. The Ringling purchased it for $8,000 in 1949. In a letter to his wife Helen in Oct 1950, Austin wrote, “The Theater by the way is really a dream and very well preserved. The color is lovely and if we can manage to get in up it will prove a sensation I am sure.” 

Austin was eager to construct a wing of the Museum to house the theater, as well as essential staff offices, art storage, and preparation space for the Museum’s exhibitions. However, when the United States entered into the Korean War, Austin’s already limited budget became even more so. He came up with a solution for the interim, and installed the theater in the Museum Auditorium (now Gallery 21).

Set design from La Serva Padrona, by Eugene Berman

Set design for "La Serva Padrona" by Eugene Berman, 1952

On February 26, 1952, the Museum held an opening gala, featuring Mozart’s comic pastoral Bastien et Basteienne and Pergolesi’s opera buffa, La Serva Pedrona. Austin designed the sets and costumes himself. According to the tribune, the affair “leaves no doubt in one’s mind concerning the genius of A Everett Austin, Jr, the director of The Ringling Museum.”

Read Part Two:Austin Before Ringling

Read Part Three:Austin's Ringling Legacy