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Q&A with Marshall Rousseau, the Ringling Museum's interim director

SARASOTA

Marshall Rousseau was named interim director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum on Aug. 7 after director John Wetenhall abruptly resigned, a move that surprised and upset many influential insiders. Florida State University has oversight of the museum, which is owned by the state, and some saw the development resulting from a rift between the director and his supervisors at FSU.

The university is responsible for 44 percent of the museum's approximately $13 million budget. The rest comes from admissions (23 percent) and other miscellany. The museum has an endowment of about $55 million, most of it raised by the trustees. Its interest generates about 7 percent of the budget.

Rousseau, 75, was asked by FSU to serve until a new director can be hired. He has a long history of involvement in the arts, although his professional life before the 1980s was centered in retail. He rose through the ranks at major department stores — he helped create the famous Neiman Marcus Christmas Book and its extravagant his-and-hers gifts with Stanley Marcus, for example — and then their larger parent companies. In 1973 he moved to Florida as vice president of marketing to start Robinson's of Florida, a now-closed chain of department stores.

After he retired from Robinson's in the 1980s, he chose projects that would immerse him in the arts, which have always been a major part of his life. He has served on boards including the Salvador Dali Museum, the Arts Center (now the Morean Arts Center), the Florida Orchestra and the Tampa Museum of Art (and was on the search committee that hired its new director). He was president of the Florida Orchestra from 1986 to 1988. He was the executive director of the Salvador Dali Museum for 11 years, retiring as director emeritus in 2002. In recent years, along with board work, he has taught art history and museum studies at Eckerd College. He has been a Ringling trustee for seven years and, he proudly says, a dues-paying member for 30 years.

Rousseau assumes management of a formidable institution. The Ringling debuted a $76 million expansion in 2007 that added about 150,000 square feet. It's now the 16th largest museum in the United States. The complex sits on 66 acres overlooking Sarasota Bay and includes the art museum with a superb collection of baroque paintings; Ca d'Zan, the sumptuous, historic home of John and Mable Ringling; the Circus Museum and Tibbals Learning Center that houses a to-scale miniature circus encompassing 4,000 square feet; and the 18th century Asolo Theater fitted into a new Visitors Center.

I chatted with Rousseau three days into the job. He was still figuring out how the lights in his office work but had a clear sense of his role there. And for full disclosure, we have been friends for close to 30 years.

John Wetenhall's departure was a surprise, even to most of the Ringling board members. It pointed up the advisory nature of the board and its limited power. Has that affected board morale?

There's no question most were taken by surprise. We have always been an advisory board, and everyone knew that going into it. But there are trustees who have been ruffled. I hope we can smooth over those feelings. I'm going to spend the next few weeks talking to each one individually, to see how they're feeling. We'll get beyond this.

How's the transition going?

I have an advantage coming in as a longtime trustee; the learning curve won't be long. I already knew every senior staff member very well, know what they do.

What's your first order of business?

I'm not going to make waves. The museum is on the right course, and John put it there. I have ideas and will make suggestions. I have some thoughts about what we might do about generating more revenue. I think there's room for growth at the gift store and in marketing our events. We're all concerned about generating more revenue. Our big thing is the International Arts Festival this fall with a very fine lineup of theater, dance and music.

But special exhibitions will have to be lined up and since the Ringling doesn't have a chief curator at this point . . .

I'll have a hand in the 2011 schedule. We have two beautiful exhibitions coming up, Canaletto and 18th century Venice and one about the Gilded Age, then a Norman Rockwell show.

A museum the size of the Ringling should have a chief curator, though. Will one be hired?

Yes, eventually, but I don't think I should look for a chief curator. That should be the choice of the new director. But we may not be able to wait that long.

What's the latest news on FSU's plan to have an academic presence at the Ringling?

We're slowly getting into it. This fall semester, a Ringling curator will be teaching at FSU in Tallahassee. It's a small but important beginning to integrating our professionals into FSU. We'll work on some kind of educational cooperative that brings students here for courses.

Is a goal for the Ringling greater financial autonomy from FSU?

Not at this point. We are part of FSU. We do need to raise and earn more money. One need, for example, is funds for the upkeep of Ca d'Zan, which is a constant concern.

How long do you think you'll be on the job as interim director?

I think I'll be around for a year or so. FSU is in no hurry to replace John; they're going for a big search. With (FSU president T.K.) Wetherell resigning, I think they would like to fill that first so the new president can have a part in the decision.

So it'll be an FSU decision?

The Ringling board will put together a search committee that will include two high-level FSU staff members. It will make a recommendation, but it will be the new president who will appoint the director.

What criteria do you think will be important for the new director?

I think they're interested in hiring a director who has already run a big museum.

Given the European emphasis of the permanent collection, have you talked about looking in Europe as well as the United States?

No, but it's a good idea. That's being done a lot with orchestras.

Is this a good time for a search?

I would say there are a number of museums looking right now but also a number of museum directors looking also.

But you're not.

No. This is a temporary job.

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

Q&A with Marshall Rousseau, the Ringling Museum's interim director 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 5:30am]
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