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Steven High brings contemporary art to Ringling

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  • | 4:00 a.m. September 21, 2011
"Steven is a sincerely committed individual," says Ringling Museum trustee Cliff Walters, of Ringling Museum Executive Director Steven High, above. "He's someone who is going to dive deeply into strategic initiatives."
"Steven is a sincerely committed individual," says Ringling Museum trustee Cliff Walters, of Ringling Museum Executive Director Steven High, above. "He's someone who is going to dive deeply into strategic initiatives."
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No wonder trustees at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art recruited Steven High.

High has that desirable mix of right- and left-brained thinking that art institutions look for in a leader.

A suit-and-tie guy with an art history degree and an MBA, High, 55, straddles the line between what the Ringling Museum is and what the Ringling Museum could be.

What that is exactly, High — the museum’s new executive director since June — articulates in one straightforward sentence: “The opposite of milquetoast.”

In other words: the opposite of timid.

“Art is about every aspect of our lives,” High says. “It’s about passion. It’s about ideas. It’s about posing questions, even if you don’t always get clear answers.”

Take, for example, “Beyond Bling,” the hip-hop art exhibition that opened shortly after High joined the museum. Although he wasn’t responsible for curating the exhibition, several visitors approached him during its run to share their opinion of the work.

Some loved it, and some hated it.

“It’s OK to do a show that not everyone agrees on,” High says. “You can’t make everyone happy all the time.”

“Bling” was part of a deliberate push to showcase more contemporary art at the Ringling Museum.

Dubbed the “Art of Our Time” initiative, the project ushered in the appointment of the museum’s first modern- and contemporary-art curator in 15 years and the six-day Ringling International Arts Festival.

It’s also the reason why High decided to leave his comfortable post at the Telfair Museums, in Savannah, Ga., for which he served as director for four years.

“To be honest,” High says, “without (Ringling’s) contemporary art commitment, I probably wouldn’t have come here. I needed something I could get behind.”

He had become to the Telfair what former Ringling Director John Wetenhall had once been to Ringling: a builder.

Under High’s helm, the Telfair completed a $76 million expansion project, added a record 40,000 new visitors and saw a spike in endowment funds.

His first year in office, he championed Telfair’s PULSE: Art and Technology Festival, a nine-day, new-media bonanza devoted to installations that featured kinetic robots, digital projectors, 3D scanners, infrared surveillance, LED lights, motors, iPhones, Wii remotes and social networking tools.

Last year, the event drew 4,000 attendees.

“When we were on our search for a new director, Steven’s name kept coming up,” says Ringling trustee Cliff Walters. “Sources kept saying, ‘You want someone like Steven High.’ After hearing it so many times, we thought, ‘Why don’t we just approach Steven High?’”

High, however, wasn’t ready to leave when the museum contacted him this spring. After laying the groundwork for massive growth in Savannah, he was eager to see the fruits of his labor flourish.

“We finally persuaded him to come and walk the campus,” Walters says. “I think that’s when he began to see not just what we have, but what we can do to go to the next level. I think he believed his experiences suited him well for the role.”

What he saw was a beautiful campus on the Sarasota waterfront, a museum filled with an impressive collection of Rubens and another museum filled with circus paraphernalia.

As impressed as he was with Ringling’s assortment of masterworks, he was even more impressed with its renewed focus on what he calls “the art of today” –– the “Art of Our Time” initiative.

Sitting at a round table in his office, High is surrounded by the art of today: heavy catalogs, magazines and glossy marketing materials from museums and art houses.

“This stuff tends to accumulate,” High says, sipping from a cup of coffee with the cool demeanor of a man who’s been on the job longer than three months.

The most cumbersome book in his stack is a circus poster book by the Strobridge Lithographing Company.

A bulky 264-page coffee table book, the Strobridge tome is filled with iconic circus posters dating from 1878 to 1939. The works are part of the “The Amazing American Circus Poster” exhibition that currently lines the walls of the Searing wing at the museum.

It’s a Ringling-ian exhibition, if such a word exists, and the first to open under High’s leadership. But as evidenced by the director’s fondness for cutting-edge contemporary art, one can only surmise that it’s barely an inkling of what’s to come.

“Museums can be intimidating for folks,” High says. “Many peoples’ experience with them is that they can’t touch anything, which isn’t how it always should be. We should be serious in some aspects and entertaining in others.”

You’d never know RIAF is less than three weeks away by looking at the museum’s unruffled director. At a time when most of the staff is running ragged from months of intense preparation, High is eerily calm.

As if sensing this about himself, he mentions only one artist on the RIAF lineup: Zimoun, a sound sculptor from Switzerland who uses DC motors to generate structure noise installations, whose work will be featured in a special exhibit during the festival.

“It’s such a simple process,” High says. “The ebb and flow of sound; the landscapes of objects all humming and moving at the same time. It’s noise, but you almost have to be quiet to hear it.”

“The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company” features 80 color posters from the golden age of American circuses. The exhibit is up now through Jan. 29, at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. For more information, visit

This year marks the 100th anniversary since John and Mable Ringling purchased their 20-acre waterfront property.


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