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Art of the Asolo

A new exhibition at the Ringling museum celebrates the success of former director Chick Austin, whose daring style and taste put the museum on the map.

Published May 7, 2006

SARASOTA -- A. Everett Austin Jr., known as Chick, blazed a protean trail through the art world from the 1930s until his death in 1956. Like his contemporary, Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art, Austin established a professional template for several generations of museum directors, first leading the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and later the John and Mable Ringling Museum in Sarasota.

That he landed at the Ringling in 1946 was a fortunate circumstance for the institution.

"Encore! Art of the Historic Asolo Theater" is not really a tribute to the Austin era at the Ringling but an acknowledgement of his 10-year tenure, which put the museum on the national arts map. The exhibition consists of 125 paintings, drawings, prints and objects illustrating the theatrical arts that he amassed in conjunction with his purchase of the Asolo Theater.

Austin was the Ringling's first director, hired when the state of Florida finally settled the legal wrangles over John Ringling's estate and took control of the museum and Ca d'Zan, Ringling's beautiful mansion. Austin had a controversial run at the conservative Wadsworth. He was responsible for a number of magnificent Old Master purchases, but he also exhibited and bought modern art that confounded many of the trustees and produced controversial musical works by avant-garde composers. He was the first U.S. museum director to mount a major Picasso retrospective. Today, he seems visionary, and the Wadsworth treasures its modernist holdings.

Austin's deep knowledge of and appreciation for the older masters would serve him well with the Ringling's magnificent baroque collection.

His first challenge was to halt the alarming deterioration of both the buildings and art, blooming with mold after years of neglect in Florida's humid climate. This was before air conditioning, remember.

Truth is, anyone passing conversant in museum conservation could have come in at that point, imposed order and gotten the museum up and running.

Another truth is that Austin, like many museum professionals in his day, wasn't as reverential about the protocols of artistic and historic preservation as his counterparts are now. He had no problem cleaning a painting, with no training in the process, as an experiment, an attitude that would horrify today's conservators.

But Austin's gift was in shaking things up. His energy and enthusiasm were badly needed at the Ringling, and he set about finding and buying art that complemented the existing collection.

His boldest stroke was the purchase of a dismantled 18th century Italian theater from a European dealer. He named it the Asolo, after the town from which it came, and first installed it in a museum gallery in 1952, then planned a new building behind the museum for it. He produced several operas in the space, even designing the costumes for one.

And he began a theatrical art collection for the museum with the idea of having rotating exhibitions in the Asolo lobby.

Some of the art in "Encore!" will be familiar to museumgoers, other pieces have never been shown before. Several 18th century paintings from a set of 15 by Giovanni Domenico Ferretti depicting Harlequin, a stock character of commedia dell'arte, have been borrowed from their usual gallery space. Thirty-seven drawings for costume designs from 17th and 18th century France have been brought out from storage for the first time.

The exhibition is divided into three sections that suggested themselves when the staff began sorting through the trove, said its curator, Francoise Hack-Lof. One theme illustrates the conventions and stock characters of commedia dell'arte, an improvisational kind of theater popular in 16th and 17th century Italy that appealed to Austin because of its connection to his theater; the other themes are costume design and theater interiors.

There are some hilarious works here, such as those French drawings. They were collected by Papillion Frere-Joyeuse, who probably also drew some of them. He was Louis XVI's superintendent of menus plaisirs, which is loosely translated as royal spectacles and entertainments, and we see fantastical get-ups for actors parading as fish, birds and a pitcher, among other things.

Austin also purchased a famous set of engravings by Jacques Callot of Italian comedic characters and a large group of drawings by Austin's friend, the set and costume designer Eugene Berman, who did some work for the Asolo. In a more modern way, they are as charming and eccentric as those of Frere-Joyeuse.

Several, organized under the title "Peep Show," are created with several engravings inserted into a box and backlit to create a dimensional effect.

"Encore!" is organized to celebrate the reopening of the Asolo Theater, which fell into serious disrepair and has been shuttered for years.

Old-timers will remember its glory days in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was the home to some of the finest opera and theater in Florida and drew audiences from Central and West Florida. Its star dimmed in later years as other regional venues opened, and, seating only several hundred people, it couldn't compete with the behemoth auditoriums that hosted touring Broadway shows. Plus, the FSU Center for Performing Arts, a larger, newer theater, was built to accommodate the Asolo Theatre Company and theater program of Florida State University, which owns the Ringling complex. The Asolo Theater itself, seating only about 200 people, was obsolete. Its panels and proscenium were dismantled and stored, the building demolished.

But the old Asolo will soon reopen. The Ringling is in the middle of a $42-million expansion that includes the Visitors Pavilion, which will house the Asolo Theater, in the final stages of a restoration. It should open for lectures and films in about two months. A grand opening with Metropolitan Opera principal Susan Graham is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Austin died in 1956, before the building he helped design was complete. Alfred Barr said of Austin, "You did things sooner and more brilliantly than others." The Ringling is richer in art thanks to him.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or


Encore! Art of the Historic Asolo Theater is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through Jan. 7. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $15 adults, $13 seniors and military, $5 children 6 to 17 and students and Florida teachers with ID. Admission includes the art museum, Ca d'Zan and the Circus Museum. The Asolo Theater is not yet open. But visitors will find Treviso, a spiffy new restaurant bustling in the Visitors Pavilion, where admission tickets are now sold. To learn more about Chick Austin, consider reading Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America, an excellent biography by Eugene R. Gaddis, published by Knopf.


[Last modified May 5, 2006, 10:14:27]

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