Museum Executive Director Anne-Marie Russell loves objects — and everything they can teach us.
Anne-Marie Russell is the kind of person who carefully curates the environment she lives and breathes in. Sitting in her home — a striking example of Sarasota Modern architecture that she loves because it’s “ugly from the front with a beautiful interior” — it makes sense why she studied both art history and anthropology.
The space is a museum of fascinating objects. From her long, angled wooden coffee table to the ’70s hard-edge abstraction painting she once picked out of a dumpster in New York (and has sitting on her mantle so she can “contemplate it”), Russell is clearly fascinated by tangible things, particularly of the handmade variety.
“Painting is about space — how do you handle and shape space, and clearly (here) you feel like you’re in a room looking out,” she says of the painting. “Or it’s just this flat thing that has geometric shapes. So it’s this dumb little painting I pulled out of the garbage, but it’s actually teaching me a lot.”
This fascination with the educational potential of art helps her every day in her role as the executive director of the soon-to-open Sarasota Art Museum, which is under Ringling College of Art and Design. Before moving to Sarasota for the job in 2015, she was the executive director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, Ariz., since 2003. There, she successfully led the adaptive reuse construction project of the MOCA, housed in a repurposed firehouse in downtown Tucson — so she’s no stranger to the task of refiguring a space for art consumption.
Sarasota Art Museum will open to the public Dec. 14 in the original Sarasota High School building at 1001 S. Tamiami Trail. The institution will serve as Sarasota’s first museum dedicated solely to contemporary art, which Russell finds more accessible than work created several centuries ago.
“If you’re dealing with Renaissance art, you need to understand the political, social and technological history of 15th century Florence,” she said. “That’s a lot to ask of the general public. With contemporary art, you just have to be living in the world today and you have everything you need to understand and engage with contemporary art.”
She finds “art of our time” beautiful and more welcoming because it’s not as far removed from today’s human experience. And she looks forward to creating a museum where Sarasotans of all backgrounds can learn from art of their time.
“Museums are scholarly institutions that are meant to create original scholarship around original works of art and then interpret that scholarship for the widest possible audience,” Russell says. “We don’t just curate exhibitions, we have to take that knowledge and translate it for everyone from a second grader in Newtown to a veteran with PTSD.”
Scholar is just one of several hats she wears as an executive director of an art museum, but Russell says most of her duties fall into the categories of curator and director — the latter of which refers to her leadership over all the other components of a cultural institution: food service, retail, governance, nonprofit executive leadership, donors, etc.
Beyond planning exhibits — which she does at least three years out, so she knows what will be at the museum through 2022 — a typical day for Russell includes everything from deciding what mission-focused items should be in the gift shop to collaborating with the marketing and communications team to decide the best way to get the word out about the opening exhibits.
The fact that Sarasota Art Museum is being constructed within a pre-existing historic building adds a whole new set of responsibilities into the mix. Russell has to oversee the design and construction of a project that’s constantly in flux because of surprises lurking behind every weathered wall or floorboard.
“They didn’t archive changes in the field 100 years ago the same way they do now, so sometimes you open a wall and say, ‘Oh, there was supposed to be a beam there and there’s not,’ so you have to rebuild the structure,” she says. “If that doesn’t get done well, then the other stuff can’t happen. … We can’t do programs if we don’t design the building properly.”
Russell says she’s equally excited about the artistic aspects of this project as the financial ones, so this process of opening a new museum — though challenging — has been enjoyable from start to finish. As a self-described “catholic with a little c” (aka the adjective for having broad interests) her diverse educational background has driven her passion throughout.
“I joke that cooking school taught me how to make movies and making movies taught me how to build museums — it’s all about a production schedule, research and design,” Russell says. “I’m interested in art, but I'm also interested in what art can tell me about my fellow human beings. What it can tell us about the past, what it implies about the future and how it helps us navigate the present.”
Curiosity is a way of life for Russell. It’s fueled several careers across several fields, and it’s her overarching interest in what humans are able to create that keeps her going.
Looking at a painting of an electrical outlet on her bookshelf, the executive director reiterates her point.
“It’s the idea that it’s not about the object itself, it’s about using it to learn something about ourselves,” she says. “That’s just paint and canvas but cognitively it’s a total trip. The mystery keeps me coming back for more.”