A. Everett 'Chick' Austin would become the inaugural director of The Ringling, but from early on in his life he had a yearning for the stage. Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1900, his father was a surgeon, and his mother was a dramatic personality from a wealthy family. Young Austin was obsessed with sleight of hand and illusions, performances of which continued into his adulthood on stage as a character of his own devising, The Great Osram.
Austin, called “Chick,” attended Harvard, where he impressed his professors in Fine Art, Art History, and was even invited on an Archeological expedition to Egypt. The esteemed faculty member Edward Waldo Forbes, Director of the Fogg Museum, asked Austin to join him at the Fogg, and soon recommended him to the Wadsworth Atheneum museum as their next director. Following Forbes’ recommendation, the museum board appointed Austin in 1927. He was 26 years old.
A Director of Many Talents
At this time, museum staff was limited: as director Austin also served as curator, preparator, and educator. Austin’s workload would reasonably overwhelm most (he simultaneously joined the faculty of Harvard’s Trinity College, founding their art program and teaching art history to undergrads), but he succeeded in transforming the museum into a beacon of contemporary art and revolutionized the performing arts in the museum setting.
Austin married Helen Goodwin in 1929 in Paris, France. He was also busy acquiring art works for the museum. He was responsible for the first Picasso retrospective to be held in the US, and the first exhibition on surrealism that rather than focus on one painter, brought together works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Pierre Roy, and Max Ernst. Austin insisted that the Museum’s newest wing contain a theater, which he designed and then oversaw construction. There, he produced the premier of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with an all-black cast.
A Man of Many Tastes
In both his private and professional life, a love for the avant-garde was paired with an adoration for all things Baroque. For the Wadsworth Atheneum, he collected Renaissance art as well as Surrealist and Modernist works, and organized lavish Venetian themed balls. He designed his home in Hartford to resemble a Palladian-style Venetian mansion, decorated with Rococo furnishings and ornamentation inside. But for all this centuries-old inspiration, Austin’s house also had Bauhaus inspired elements, and decidedly broke from tradition in its overall proportions, measuring 86 feet wide and only 18 feet deep!
In 1944, Austin resigned from the Wadsworth Atheneum, but his career as a maverick museum director was far from over. Soon, his former professor and colleague Edward Waldo Forbes would be approached by the Governor of Florida, seeking a recommendation for the first director of his State’s art museum.
Read Part One: Austin Arrives at The Ringling
Read Part Three: Austin's Ringling Legacy