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In surprise, museum director resigns

Whither the Appleton?

The nice little museum in Ocala that in just three years has become a major regional draw is losing the man responsible for its transformation.

Jeffrey Spaulding, director of the Appleton Museum of Art, is leaving. The big question: Will new leadership be able to continue the ambitious mission he established?

His announcement was a surprise to everyone, according to museum insiders who were recently notified of his intention to return to Canada at the end of the month, when his contract is up.

When a departure seems so abrupt, rumors float, and so do whispers of possible "problems" that forced the decision.

But in this case, any such intimations are flat out denied.

"Absolutely not," said Sandy D'Alemberte, president of Florida State University and one of Spaulding's bosses.

"It was a complete surprise," said Charles Dessance, president of Central Florida Community College and another boss of Spaulding. "It's a real loss."

"He's done a splendid job," D'Alemberte said. "I'm fond of saying no one's indispensable, but I find myself thinking he comes close."

Spaulding came to the Appleton from Alberta, where he was director of the art museum at the University of Lethbridge.

The Appleton was founded in 1987 by Arthur Appleton, a wealthy businessman from Chicago who gave millions to build a museum for his 19th century art, African artifacts and Oriental objects, a very nice collection but not one to attract much attention from outside the area. In the early 1990s, it was turned over to a joint ownership between Florida State University and Central Florida Community College, with a governing board of representatives from those institutions, the city of Ocala and the community.

Spaulding consolidated the collection and opened up most of the gallery space for visiting shows. He brought both scholarship and creativity to the new job, landing important exhibitions of 19th and 20th century paintings and, most recently, a group of Baroque drawings from Flemish masters, including Peter Paul Rubens. Their success boosted attendance from a previous average of about 50 visitors a day to as many as 1,800. He also is credited with making the museum more accessible and launching educational programs for students and recreational events for families.

Spaulding has been out of town and unavailable for comment, but in an e-mail sent two weeks ago, he called his move "a family decision."

Both D'Alemberte and Appleton assistant director Jim Rosengren, who will become interim director, said he was returning to Canada at his family's behest.

"He has two teenage daughters and a wife, and because of the laws here, none of them could get jobs," Rosengren said. "That had to be difficult. I love living in Ocala, but I think they missed Canada."

So can the Appleton sustain the level of quality initiated during Spaulding's tenure, and will its leaders even try?

Everyone involved concedes that it was Spaulding's vision, a network of contacts in the art world and an ability to charm money from donors and corporations that led to its meteoric success. The Appleton does not have an endowment to pay for the very expensive shows that Spaulding sought, making the financial situation a constant "hand-to-mouth" quest for underwriting, by Spaulding's own admission.

D'Alemberte said the search is on for a new director, and he'd like to find one with the same commitment to growth. A committee of Marion County leaders was formed even before Spaulding's announcement to help with development and fundraising.

"Jeffrey set a standard we would not want to lower," D'Alemberte said.

"I can't imagine that we won't continue with the perspective we've established," Rosengren said. "We have a big fundraiser planned for early December, and things are settling into place."

The museum has no more big shows lined up, Rosengren said.

The current one is a group of Inuit sculptures on loan from Canadian galleries, not an exhibition that will have the masses beating a path to the Appleton's doors. But Rosengren has gotten confirmation that a collector will loan drawings of the Inuit by Matisse, which should add popular appeal.

That this small show will be the final one as Spaulding leaves is perhaps an indication that he took things as far as he could.

"You can use all sorts of analogies," Rosengren said. "Like prophets, people who come into your life and aren't there for very long, to show you something. Jeffrey realized the potential of the museum. There's the homage you pay to the work the vanguard does. But he's leaving, and we're still here."