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Swing into high gear

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  • | 4:00 a.m. October 3, 2012
Steven High has grabbed the bull by the horns during his first year as executive director of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Steven High has grabbed the bull by the horns during his first year as executive director of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
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Steven High and his wife, Lisa, closed on their Sapphire Shores house in September. About a year-and-a-half after High began his role as executive director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota is finally beginning to feel like home.

High runs around the Ringling grounds in the morning as part of his daily exercise routine. He roams the galleries whenever he has time. His new house is just around the corner from the museum. All of this is a testament to the fact that High is in no way sick of his job — and it doesn’t look like he ever will be.

“We have no intention of leaving; it’s a beautiful place,” he says. “My job here is a wonderful job, and we hope it’s our home for a long time — if not forever.”

Ostensibly, since taking the position in March 2011, High has remained under-the-radar, but with more than a year under his belt, he is shedding the new-guy label. He has swung things into “high gear” at the museum and is at the helm of creating a legacy for Ringling.

High still periodically slips up and refers to Sarasota as Savannah (Ga.), where he spent four years as the director of Telfair Museums before he came to Ringling. Although it’s a historic city, Savannah has a young population — there are three colleges close to downtown. Sarasota has four colleges within two miles, but, according to High, it lacks the same young presence as Savannah.

High believes Sarasota needs to develop a sense of place, of longevity where students and young people want to remain.

“I think (the museum) is a hidden resource that most people aren’t really aware of, and that’s one of the things we’ve been working on — being a convening place for these students,” he says.

High and his team are pushing to make Ringling self-sustainable by engaging area youth — the museum’s present and future audience.

“If they see no relevance in what we do and have no ownership in what we do, then they won’t care about us in 20 to 30 years,” High says.

One museum-hosted event, initiated within his first year, speaks to a breed of 20-somethings in a language they understand — food and rock ’n’ roll. Ringling Underground, which most recently took place in September, was created as a fun environment in which to explore the museum at one’s own pace. The inaugural event was held in February; 460 people attended the September event, the majority being students and young professionals. They lounged beneath the Turrell Skyspace installation and filled the galleries while the sounds of live music in the courtyard filled the air.

But High isn’t only concerned with attracting the youth of today; he also wants to draw in the art of today. Ringling calls it the “Art of Our Time” initiative, and it’s an effort to bring modern and contemporary art to the museum. The initiative attracted High to his current position.

“Art of Our Time is an emerging area, but we feel we can really specialize in it on a regional and national level,” High says.

He makes the argument that Ringling could either be a time capsule that looks at one time period or it could be something greater offering a look at visual culture across the ages.

One of the anchors of “Art of Our Time” is the Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF). The event is in its fourth year of bringing international contemporary art in all platforms to Ringling. This year, the four-day festival is transitioning from government-funded support to private support. High and his team are working on ways to make it affordable without diminishing the quality of work or the character of the festival.

This year’s RIAF, starting Oct. 10, has one fewer performance group than last year, a new film program and, for the first time, performances in the Turrell Skyspace.

The smaller budget has a positive side: “The past (festivals) have been so jam-packed that you couldn’t have possibly seen it all. This year, we’re allowing more time for a deeper experience,” High says.

The Turrell performances, as well as the opening-night party, are already sold out, and as of Sept. 21, 75% of stage performances and film tickets had been sold. High believes RIAF’s future offerings will continue to evolve.

RIAF is just one progressive piece of the future of the museum under High’s leadership. Discussions will take place in the coming months as the museum enters into strategic visioning for the next five years. High’s vision of a perfect Ringling Museum wouldn’t look much different than the one his team has been working toward since he started.

“It’s a pretty spectacular museum,” he says. “I would say we would be doing more of what we are doing now.”

He would like to see a strengthening of the student base and providing more resources for it; expanding endowments; and for the museum to broaden its audience. He’d also like to see major exhibitions of work based off of museum collections.

The museum is in the initial discussion stages of a new Asian art wing to house the museum’s Asian collection and potentially hosting revolving contemporary Asian work in conjunction with “Art of Our Time.”

“If we don’t pay attention to what’s going on today, we won’t have anything to show future generations about the thinking, the visual language (and) the content of art in this period of time,” he says.

He can’t speak to what the future will hold but what he can say is, “Ringling Museum is here to stay.”
And so is High, for that matter.

High’s rundown
Favorite artist: James Turrell
If High could own any work, it would be: Cy Twombly
Favorite piece at Ringling: (Nicolas) Poussin’s “Ecstasy of St. Paul.”
Most interesting period of art: the future
The artist High wishes would spontaneously combust: Thomas Kinkade
Must underrated artist: Paolo Veronese


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