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New Ringling Museum of Art director Steven High aims to reach the 'underserved'

SARASOTA

Steven High has a lot of ground to cover. Sixty-six acres to be exact, the campus of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. • High, 55, is its new director, named in March to head the institution that includes a venerable art museum, historic mansion, the Circus Museum, Asolo Theater, a botanical garden and education center. • He has been on the job since early June, taking over from Marshall Rousseau, who had been interim director for about two years. • High comes to the Ringling with an impressive resume built on major fundraising and expansion projects at a time when the Ringling has no visibly pressing needs in either category. In 2007 a sweeping $76 million expansion was completed that added 150,000 square feet to the museum and more than $50 million in endowment dollars. • There are always things for which to raise money, of course, but the heavy lifting seems over, at least for a long time. • So what's a guy like High to do?

"It's important to have a robust program of exhibitions and education that can bring in people who are being underserved," he says.

He has done that before.

High comes from the Telfair Museums in Savannah, Ga., the oldest art museum in the South, where he was director and CEO since 2007.

"I worked on breaking down barriers," he said. "There are a lot of barriers in Savannah. We used the new addition we built as a tool to break down those old feelings about what the Telfair had meant to the community, especially to African-Americans."

In 2010, Telfair posted the largest attendance in its history at 180,000, up from previous averages of 140,000.

When directors speak of the underserved, they aren't referring just to those who aren't able to attend. They are also keenly interested in those who choose not to come, those who could commit but don't, those who don't feel welcome or comfortable for many reasons.

A feeling of commitment is especially relevant because while increased attendance is good, increased membership (meaning commitment) is better.

And he has a lot of experience in that department, too.

From 1966 to 2007, when he joined the Telfair, High was director and CEO of the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. During his decade there, the museum's membership grew from 900 to 7,000 households. Not coincidentally, a communitywide capital campaign raised $24 million for a new $16 million facility. In other words, a onetime visitor likely will give no more than the cost of admission. A member likely will.

"The goal is to grow membership," High says, especially people in their mid 20s and mid 30s, an elusive group for many museums. "To make a member come three to four times a year so that membership becomes a deal. To reach that point where they feel like shareholders in this organization. Then, ideally, a percentage will step up and enter a new stage of philanthropy."

Given his accomplishments, he seemed like an obvious fit at the Ringling, but High didn't apply for the job when it was posted in 2009 after director John Wetenhall resigned.

The circumstances of his appointment to the Ringling are unusual in the museum world because he wasn't in competition with other applicants. High was recruited after an unsuccessful two-year national search by the Ringling, and he was asked to consider the job by the trustees, who had heard about his accomplishments.

"I wasn't ready to leave (Telfair)," High says. "I felt I had at least another year there. We were right at the verge of beginning to grow again."

He was drawn to the Ringling because "both museums (Telfair and Ringling) have a lot of the same issues. They're just larger here."

The Telfair, like the Ringling, is made up of several facilities with different missions, but the Ringling is unique in the variety of its attractions. No other institution in the United States can boast that visitors can see an excellent collection of Baroque art, a charming (and functional) scale model of a circus, a glamorous period mansion, performances in a jewel box Italian theater, and manicured gardens all at one spectacular waterfront location.

"How do you brand all that?" he wonders.

Even 50 years ago, the concept of branding a museum would be heretical. High is part of a new breed of professionals who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s and understood that the old museum model was changing. Support had to extend beyond a small group of wealthy patrons, and a museum had to be run as a business, not a private club. Many museum boards began valuing a degree in business administration as much as or more than one in art when looking for a new director. High has master's degrees in both.

So he's as comfortable plotting a branding campaign as he is curating an exhibition.

Though Ringling attendance has slipped, probably because of the economy's impact on tourism, it's still healthy at about 244,000 people a year. Its membership numbers are strong, with about 7,100 households. The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, another big regional tourist draw, has more than 3,500, for example.

The Ringling Museum's leaders would probably feel less urgency in the face of these positive numbers if it weren't so reliant on state dollars.

As the state museum of Florida, it receives money through Florida State University, which controls the museum and contributes about half of its $13.6 million budget.

"This year, FSU has a $19 million cut," High says, "and we're prepared to see that hit us. We raised a lot of money fast (for the capital campaign in 2007). Now we need to stabilize the fundraising program and grow more revenue streams so we become less dependent on state funding."

Which leads High back to attendance and membership. He's still thinking about the complex combination of art, education and entertainment that will prove compelling enough to draw repeat visitors. And from that pool, become members. And from that pool, donors. He has a lot to work with already at the Ringling, which has a packed schedule of exhibitions, special events and social functions.

High has no specific thoughts yet. After a few months, he's still getting to know the program, the people and the property. But he has covered similar ground before.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

New Ringling Museum of Art director Steven High aims to reach the 'underserved' 08/13/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 5:30am]

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