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Bringing clarity to the complex

Stephen Borys, Ringling's new curator, wants to make the museum's best works more accessible to visitors.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published July 16, 2006


SARASOTA - "See? It just happened," said Stephen Borys, new curator of the collection at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, as a group of visitors walked past him.

He was referring to the Enfilade March, his term for the museum layout that encourages museum visitors to file past the art they're supposedly there to view.

John Ringling designed the museum in the late 1920s as two long wings with galleries linked by an enfilade, or corridor, that runs along each side. In them, he stacked his enormous collection of mostly Baroque art in multiple rows, called the salon style. Newer museums are usually configurations of galleries that lead people through and around the rooms, the art arranged with lots of space between them. The Ringling's enfilade gives visitors a straight shot through the museum, making it easier for people to keep walking past a gallery loaded with 20 to 30 paintings rather than linger in front of the art.

During our conversation, two groups of people never paused in the gallery in which we stood.

Borys hopes to slow everyone down.

"Often, the experience is one of visual overload," he said. "With 21 galleries and about 600 paintings, we ask a lot of people who on average spend an hour or a bit more here."

Contributing to that overload are the vivid colors distinguishing most of the rooms, a rainbow of turquoise, purple, blue, yellow, burgundy and green that can be jarring and distracting.

In his three months on the job, Borys, 43, has "reinterpreted" four of the smaller galleries, toning down colors and rearranging the collection to suggest themes and artistic currents and to encourage comparisons. He has streamlined wall texts to no more than 90 words each, "about as much as people want to read, we found," he said.

In many ways the changes are subtle. But he has taken some risks, too.

In Gallery 11, for example, a sort of catch-all for Dutch and Flemish art of the 16th and 17th centuries, he has edited the works down from 30 to seven and renamed it Dutch Realism and Representation with a focus on portraiture. Frans Hals' Portrait of Pieter Jacobsz. Olycan dominates the wall it shares with four others.

"That was an issue in this arrangement," Borys said, "the possibility that a painting like the Hals would detract from the others."

But, he points out, putting them together provides viewers with a chance to see how painters working at about the same time and in close proximity chose to interpret their genre. Hals in isolation would be considered a highly realistic painter. Next to Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn, who approaches photo-realism in Portrait of Maria Butel with its smooth, indiscernible brushwork, Hals' feathery colors and mottled skin are expressive and interpretive. Van Ravesteyn was a popular and successful painter in his day, favored for the verisimilitude that produced exact likenesses with none of Hals' subtleties. He's an important artist. But Hals' is indisputably a more important work. Seeing it in this way helps us understand why.

The changes reflect in part Borys' background as an educator. He came to the Ringling from Oberlin College in Ohio, where he was curator of western art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum and also taught in the art history department. Before that, he was a curator at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. He holds a doctorate in art and architectural history from McGill University, Montreal.

Many of the larger galleries will stay pretty much as they are, said Borys. "The Grand Tour Gallery (with British art) is perfect," he said.

But he wants in many galleries to draw attention to the most important works that can get lost in the bounty.

"If you come to the Ringling," he said, "you want to make sure to see the great pictures. I want to make it easy to do that."

In the works are handouts for each gallery and an audio tour. And when the new special exhibitions gallery opens in February, Borys hopes to use part of the space for a "Master Series" in which one masterpiece on loan from another museum would be displayed.