Spending the last 14 years as an ex-pat in Copenhagen, Elisa Hansen returns to her hometown and her art home: the Ringling Museum.
| 6:00 a.m. May 27, 2015
Arts + Culture
The sun was setting in Copenhagen.
The day was ending just like any other in the capital city of Denmark as its citizens left work and started their commutes. But Elisa Hansen took a different route that night.
She took a detour to the Amalienborg, the Danish royal palace. Through one of her classmates at the Royal School of Library Science, Hansen and her family were escorted after hours into the personal library and collection of dozens of former Danish kings and queens. It’s one of Denmark’s hardest libraries to get into, normally requiring special recommendation. Hansen was thrilled to be inside its walls examining the art and artifacts of royalty over the centuries.
To others, it would have been an interesting experience, but to Hansen, it was a rush. It also is just one example of why she loves what she does.
“Art history and libraries have given my life continuity. It’s always been a thread that has carried me through my whole life. No matter what I’ve done careerwise, it’s always a been a strong influence”
— Elisa Hansen, head of library information services at the Ringling
Born and raised in Sarasota, Hansen spent her early days of adventure on the bay. Her father, Gotfred Hansen, was an immigrant from Denmark who owned the boat and marine supply store Hansen Chris-craft.
“My father’s hobby was designing and building boats, so we always had something that we could use to get on the water,” says Hansen. “All the people who we knew lived on or near the water, and so my friends and I would scoot back and forth across the bay so we didn’t have to rely on our parents to drive us to each other’s homes.”
Another inescapable influence of growing up in Sarasota was the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
“I had exposure to historic buildings and museums and other things of that nature, but it was the Ringling that was my first sort of museum experience as a young child, and I came here often while I was growing up for all kinds of performances and exhibitions.”
After graduating from Cardinal Mooney High School, she studied nursing at Queens University of Charlotte. But it didn’t take long before she decided to make a switch. She transferred to Florida State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in art history.
Hansen as been all-in ever since.
“I think you have to have an absolute passion for art history,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine anything more glorious than studying art all day.”
After graduating from FSU, Hansen earned two master’s degrees, one in art history from Southern Methodist University and the other in library and information science from the University of South Florida. After countless hours of studying and research, Hansen eventually got to work at the place where her journey began: the Ringling.
She served as the director of adult and academic programs and as acting curator from 1989 to 1995. During this time she met her husband, Flemming Sogaard, a fellow Dane. Hansen, her husband and their two daughters, Inga and Anna Sofia, moved to Copenhagen to work and live in his native country.
While living in Denmark, Hansen worked at the Museum of Decorative Arts, studied at the Royal School of Library and Information Science and taught English courses at international schools. But she always had art history and museums on her mind. When she was teaching 10th grade-level English, her curriculum included trips to local museums. She had her students write essays about the artwork they saw.
Some of Hansen’s favorite artistic haunts included the David Collection, a private museum that has the largest collection of Islamic art in northern Europe and the King’s Garden, a public garden in downtown Copenhagen.
It’s an ironic coincidence that Hansen’s favorite spots were a museum in a former private residence and a public garden: two components of Hansen’s beloved Ringling. Finally, late last year, Hansen found an opportunity to move back to her artistic home.
“I realized that I really wanted to come home after 14 years and that if I didn’t come back that I’d be spending the rest of my life in Copenhagen, which I didn’t want to do,” says Hansen.
She landed her dream job as head of library information services at Ringling. Located inside the education center building, tucked in the corner of the campus between the art museum and Cà d’Zan, Hansen is in charge of the ever-expanding art library.
A branch of FSU’s library system, the library has approximately 60,000 volumes in total, which includes 5,000 rare books (the oldest dating back to the 15th century) and the personal collections of some of Sarasota’s longtime residents, including John Ringling. The books vary in size from small and light periodicals to some that are hundreds of years old and are massive in size, which forces the petite Hansen to ask for assistance when pulling them down from the shelf.
Arriving before or near sunrise every day and usually not leaving until after 6 p.m., Hansen is dedicated to improving the library. Her first goal? Getting more people to visit it.
“I would like for more people to know we exist, because this is one of the best art libraries in the southeastern United States,” says Hansen.
Due to the library’s almost hidden location on the Ringling campus and the current construction that’s under way on the Asian art center nearby, most visitors don’t venture into the library’s spacious and bright reading room. By expanding programming to include children’s book series, book clubs and lectures in which participants can view centuries-old books and artifacts, Hansen hopes to build awareness of the library within the community.
In stark contrast with the stereotypical librarian who shushes patrons at the slightest noise, Hansen revels in her vision of a full library abuzz with conversation and debate.
“Art history and libraries have given my life continuity,” says Hansen. “It’s always been a thread that has carried me through my whole life. No matter what I’ve done careerwise, it’s always a been a strong influence.”
By the Books
Breaking down the Ringling Art Library’s collection
Volumes in the libraries collection
Volumes of rare books
Approximate number of books from John Ringling’s personal library
15th to 21st centuries
The 700-year age span of books in the collection
Approximate number of art publications and periodicals to which the library subscribes
Average number of new titles the library adds each year to its collection