A large fluffy cloud, leftover from Sanford Biggers’ “Codex” exhibit, sits atop a bookshelf in Matthew McLendon’s office. On one of the shelves is a framed photo of McLendon, The Ringling’s curator of modern and contemporary art, taken at the opening of his exhibit, “Beyond Bling: Voices of Hip Hop in Art.” On another shelf, there’s a poster of Swiss kinetic-sound sculptor Zimoun’s work, another exhibit McLendon curated in Sarasota.
Before he joined The Ringling’s staff in January 2010, there wasn’t an emphasis on post 1850s art.
From behind his desk, the tall redhead explains, when he first arrived, the museum already had its fair share of modern and contemporary art. He’s had to work hard to dispel the impression that The Ringling doesn’t have modern art.
One-third of The John and Mable Ringling Museum’s permanent collection is modern and contemporary art, not including the circus collection.
“People just weren’t aware that we had these types of holdings,” he says. “That was really my first goal: to get some of this out of the vault and in front of people on a consistent and prolonged basis.”
He also brings in packaged exhibits, like “Herb Ritts: L.A. Style,” curated exhibits that travel from other museums to Sarasota. For these, he helps prepare the layout, colors of the wall and look of the gallery.
The Brooklyn Museum’s “American Moderns: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell” opens June 14. It was one of the first packaged exhibits he booked when he started (the museum works many years ahead of schedule).
Because there’s not a broad or deep collection of American art from these decades in the permanent collection, the packaged exhibits are a way to expose viewers to the artwork.
And, as his office décor indicates, he’s curated many unique exhibits for The Ringling since he started. His first big project was the James Turrell Skyspace installation, of which he’s particularly proud.
And the modern and contemporary art for which he is responsible extends beyond the visual, into the performing arts, creating a synergy between the two.
In fact, the showcase of contemporary visual and performing arts, via “Art of Our Time,” is an initiative developed from conversations between McLendon and Dwight Currie, associate director of museum programs, in McLendon’s first year.
In addition to his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in art, McLendon also has a degree in classical voice. He thinks that coming from a performing-arts background into the visual arts makes him think differently than most: “I don’t see genres. And I think genres are increasingly unimportant in contemporary art,” he says.
He gives the example of New York-based artist R. Luke DuBois, who McLendon says is “a new media artist who defies categorization.” McLendon is currently working on the first survey exhibition of DuBois to open in January at The Ringling. DuBois is temporarily living in Sarasota to work closely with McLendon in developing the exhibit, including a new piece that the artist will unveil. McLendon thinks Sarasotans have been incredibly gracious and welcoming to modern and contemporary art, and he’s sure they’ll love “American Moderns.”
But, nothing compares to opening a show he has curated — like the upcoming DuBois exhibit this winter.
“When it’s a show that you’ve worked on for three or five years to bring it together — it’s tremendous,” he says.
If You Go
‘American Moderns 1910 – 1960: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell’
When: Opens June 14 and runs through Sept. 8
Where: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Searing wing
Cost: Tickets $5 to $25
Info: Call 359-5700