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Show me the gossip - please

The three essays in this book purport to tell the history of Sarasota's arts scene. They leave the reader wishing for more details.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published May 1, 2003

Within this slender, handsomely bound volume is a history of the rise and demise of the vibrant visual arts colony in Sarasota that began in the early 20th century, reached its finest flowering in the 1960s and 1970s, and then declined as artists died or left for fresher arcadias.

At the heart of the story is, of course, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and its founder, John Ringling, primary creator of the grand ambiance and practical infrastructure that made Sarasota an idyllic place for any lover of natural or artificial beauty.

The book is divided into three essays, each authored by an insider to the Sarasota arts scene, which is both a blessing and a curse. No one knows more about their topic than Pat Ringling Buck, great-niece of Ringling; Marcia Corbino, a distinguished Sarasota art critic and writer; and Kevin Dean, curator and director of the Selby Gallery at the Ringling School of Art and Design. Their chronicling of history has the easy assurance of ones who know firsthand the people and events about which they write. At the same time, their personal and professional involvement raises questions of objectivity.

Buck's chapter, "Art and the City," is an overview of the city and the arts. Understandably, its early portion is devoted to the first philanthropists, especially John Ringling, and no writer can overstate the remarkable legacy he left in signing over his museum, his waterfront mansion and the finest collection of Baroque art in the United States at that time to the state of Florida. But he was a complex man and all we get here is a superficial reading.

Her discussion of A. Everett "Chick" Austin Jr., the museum's first director, hired after Ringling's death and 10 years of wrangling between the state, the city and his heirs (also not discussed beyond a single sentence about "legal complications"), lacks the telling details of another fascinating character. Absent are mentions of his run-ins with state politicians over funding, the vendetta launched against him by a Tampa newspaper and criticism of his purchase of the Asolo Theater.

And Buck's assertion that "Sarasota has acquired singular distinction as the arts capital of Florida" is too easily disputed. The Ringling Museum is still the most important museum in Florida, but other communities - Miami, Palm Beach and the Tampa-St. Petersburg area - can boast equally, if not more, comprehensive networks of cultural facilities and private galleries. Marcia Corbino's "The Sarasota Art Colony" is a chatty, generally adoring compilation of the artists who settled in Sarasota over the years, some of them with national reputations. In her recounting of four decades during which the arts community grew, she alludes to the creative energy that swirled through it but doesn't share many of the sparks that had to have flown from this independent and gifted band of men and women. Call me shallow, but I'd love a little gossip.

Toward the end of the final essay, "The Ringling School of Art and Design," the reader will probably feel as if he's reading a promotional brochure. Its author, Kevin Dean, is an employee of the school, so we cannot expect, nor do we get, much more than a sanitized recounting of the struggle it has had to survive and define itself since Ringling gave it his blessing in 1931 and a glowing roundup of its most recent leaders and programs.

Still, the book as a whole has value as a document of social history. Its black and white photographs and 25 color plates of locals and their art illustrate the vibrancy of the place. And realistically, the authors probably couldn't do more than a gloss of such ambitious subject matter in just over 100 pages. If Corbino, for example, declines to delve into the deeper life of the arts community, at least she gets all the names of its participants in. And the growth of arts schools and programs in Buck's essay provide a sense of how fundamental the arts were to the growth of Sarasota for decades, before wholesale residential development changed the landscape and demographics.

What we're left with is a curiosity to learn more about these people. It's not only disingenuous, but patronizing, to present this community as a sort of monolithic Happy Dale Farm. It's a virtue that these writers, who know so much, didn't tell all. But they should have told more.

BOOK REVIEW

A History of Visual Art in Sarasota by Pat Ringling Buck, Marcia Corbino and Kevin Dean, University Press of Florida, 2003 (125 pages, $29.95).

[Last modified April 30, 2003, 12:06:37]


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