The departure Tuesday of John Wetenhall, director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota, was abrupt and caught even many Ringling insiders off guard. The words used in a news release from Florida State University calling it a decision "to step down to pursue other opportunities" are the kind of vague ubiquity that invite speculation.
"The university has acted as they see fit and that's that," said Barbara Siemer, chairman of the Ringling board.
And as FSU officials call it a resignation, board member and immediate past chairman Sandy Rief calls it "a termination. I was totally taken by surprise. I would say probably most of the board was in the dark."
The outcome may have coalesced quickly but its germination probably was longer in the making.
Though it sits several hundred miles south of FSU and seems to be an independent entity, the Ringling Museum is under the university's control. It operates the museum on behalf of the state, which has owned it since 1946 after circus impresario John Ringling donated it to Florida. The Ringling has a strong board of well-connected leaders but they are officially only an advisory group that raises money and supports many of the aesthetic decisions involving programming and the collection.
"It's a difficult situation," said Siemer, "when two entities run the show."
John McKay, former state Senate president and vice chairman of the board, said that there had likely been conflict for quite a while between Wetenhall, 51, and FSU stemming from state budget cuts and a reordering FSU began several years ago to deal with them.
One plan has been to expand the Ringling's role as a university museum.
"Florida State," McKay said, "has a desire to create academic programs which John wasn't terribly pleased about initially."
Sally McRorie, dean of FSU's College of Visual Arts, Theater and Dance, said the university is planning a visual arts program that would bring students to the Ringling for at least a full semester, perhaps as early as fall 2010.
"It needs to be a complete curriculum," she said. "We're committed to that."
Rief and McKay both said that Wetenhall also chafed under an administrative restructuring.
"There was a status change," said Rief. "He had to report to the dean rather than being on the same level with the deans who report to the provost."
"John wasn't wild about that," said McKay. "He felt his stature was lowered."
Wetenhall declined comment.
Siemer, Rief and McKay praised Wetenhall for his accomplishments during his eight-year tenure.
"We're terribly sorry to see John go," said Siemer. "What he did for the museum during our expansion was incalculable. That said, the very best person they could bring in in the interim is Marshall," referring to Marshall Rousseau, director emeritus of the Salvador Dali Museum and a Ringling board member, who will serve as interim director.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.