It’s Marshall Rousseau’s third day on the job as interim director at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and his office, with its white walls and empty inbox, is a blank slate. The space, which was occupied for eight years by former museum director John Wetenhall, looks more like a state legislator’s quarters than it does the office of an art-and-circus museum director.
Except for a crumpled can of Mountain Dew, a 670-page, circus coffee-table book and a smattering of chairs the Ringling staff jokingly calls “airport lounge seats,” the control center of the 66-acre circus estate is, for the most part, unimaginative.
Even Rousseau knows it.
“Can’t we get some art in here?” he asks the staff as he walks into the waiting room outside his office and settles into a red “airport lounge” chair. “We’re an art museum, for God’s sake.”
When Wetenhall announced his sudden resignation earlier this month, Florida State University, which governs the museum, asked Rousseau, the 76-year-old retired director of the Salvador Dalí Museum, to temporarily take his place.
A Ringling board member for seven years, Rousseau not only understood the particulars of the museum — including recent budget cuts and plans behind next month’s five-day International Arts Festival — his 11-year tenure at Dalí made him the obvious choice for interim director.
“We’re very happy to have his leadership in this transitional period,” said Sally McRorie, dean of the FSU College of Visual Arts, Theatre and Dance. “We feel confident in Marshall’s capacity to lead.”
In a way, it was like Rousseau was unofficially in line for the position from the beginning. During Wetenhall’s first year in office, he invited Rousseau, a longtime board member of the Asolo Repertory Theatre, to join the Ringling board, a move Rousseau calls “gutsy.”
“It’s rare for a museum director to invite another museum director on board,” Rousseau says. “Most directors don’t want to hear what other directors have to say. They’re running their own show.”
Nonetheless, Rousseau was honored by the invitation.
“(Ringling) is the biggest museum in the state,” he says. “I was very pleased John actually wanted me to be a bigger part of the picture.”
In June 2002, Rousseau retired from Dalí. By October, he was serving on Ringling’s board of directors, splitting his time between a home in St. Petersburg and a condo on Palm Avenue in downtown Sarasota, which he purchased in 1998 to ease his 50-mile commute.
Rousseau and Wetenhall became fast friends, even sharing season tickets to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.
“We hit it off,” says Rousseau, who admits he was just as taken back by Wetenhall’s resignation as anyone else working inside the museum. “I’m disappointed we’re losing him and surprised he decided to pull away from us. He did so much with this institution in the eight years he was here.”
A native of St. Louis, Rousseau moved to Florida 36 years ago to lead a management team for Robinson’s-May department store, which moved a division of its upscale retail chain in 1973 to St. Petersburg’s Tyrone Square Mall.
An English major, Rousseau spent 30 years marketing department stores. His art background was limited to common-sense ad campaigns aimed at netting more and higher sales, so it was no surprise that when Rousseau assumed his post at Dalí in 1991, his biggest claim to fame was positioning the museum’s souvenir shop among the top-14, highest-grossing souvenir shops in the country.
“My job in advertising and marketing was to make sure that every customer who came into the store had a good experience,” Rousseau says. “And, I just transferred that philosophy over to the museum. My board members would always kid me because I would refer to visitors as ‘customers.’ I couldn’t get rid of that vocabulary.”
When Rousseau first arrived in Florida, he quickly got involved in the area’s burgeoning arts scene, serving on boards of directors from Sarasota to Tampa, including The Art Center of St. Petersburg, the Florida Orchestra and Florida Arts Council.
“He’s one of those high-powered people you can’t help but like,” says Luellen Murphy, Rousseau’s assistant at the Dalí Museum for 11 years, who still meets Rousseau for lunch in St. Petersburg once a year. “He wasn’t overly demanding, but you always knew what you were supposed to do. I’ve worked for 30 years — 15 of those at the Dalí Museum — and Marshall was by far my favorite boss.”
Rousseau left Dalí in 2002, when the museum began outlining its plan for a new $35 million waterfront museum, now slated to open in 2011.
“I didn’t study civil engineering,” he says flatly. “Talking to architects and looking at floor plans doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather be doing other things.”
An adjunct professor at Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, Rousseau prefers to practice what he preaches — museum management. It’s why FSU asked him to fill in the first place, because, as Murphy puts it, “he’s one of those people you enjoy working for.”
“I think we’re on a good course,” Rousseau says. “My job right now is to keep us on that course. We have a very ambitious schedule coming up in October with the arts fest, going into exhibitions in the spring. I’m just the caretaker for however long it takes to find a director. Beyond that, I haven’t put a plan together.”
His second claim to fame was getting the museum’s founders, Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, whose private Dalí collection on which the museum was built, to agree to lend and borrow works from other museums, most notably the Andy Warhol Museum, in Pittsburg.
The exchange was a big step for Rousseau. Even convincing the notoriously mulish Reynolds Morse to install a Coke machine in the museum was a difficult task.
“Mr. Morse was hard to get along with,” says Luellen Murphy, Rousseau’s assistant at the Dalí Museum for 11 years. “He wasn’t interested in what he called ‘artsy-fartsy’ people. He wanted someone with business acumen, and Marshall seemed to walk that fine line.”
Those who worked with him appreciated his straightforward, no-nonsense attitude, his Midwestern values and honesty.
He commends Wetenhall for overseeing what amounted to $150 million in restoration and construction projects during his tenure at Ringling.
“I don’t think I could have handled all those projects,” Rousseau says.
From John Wetenhall
In a statement released Aug. 4 by Florida State University, former Ringling Museum director John Wetenhall had this to say regarding his unexpected departure:
“During the past eight years, it has been a privilege to lead the Ringling Museum through a remarkable transformation during which the museum doubled in size and re-established its rightful place in the national and international museum world. This is a credit to a wonderful staff, a remarkable board, The Florida State University and a supportive community. Having achieved so much together, it is now time for me to move on to pursue other challenges.”