Officially, 2006 was “The Year of the Museum.”
But if you ask me, here in Sarasota, the year of the museum is now. Philippe de Montebello, the legendary, longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, got me—and many other Sarasotans—in a museum frame of mind back in March, when he spoke in the Town Hall series for the Ringling College of Art and Design Library Association. We were privileged to sponsor that event, and like the rest of the audience, I was hugely entertained by his behind-the-scenes stories of smashing successes and near disasters in acquiring and displaying works of art, and inspired by his passion for that art.
Aristocratic and monumentally charming, De Montebello shudders at the trendy idea of museums as entertainment palaces; they are instead places where we preserve and encounter cultural treasures that tell the story of mankind, he insists, and their primary function is to ensure that the art can speak for itself. He has been sometimes accused of elitism, and he loves to plead guilty as charged.
“Yes, of course, museums are for the elite,” he once told an inner-city student who raised the accusation while visiting the Met with an after-school class on a Saturday. “And you’re an elitist yourself, aren’t you, because you are here wanting to learn something and improve yourself when you could be doing something else.”
Museums, he believes, stand ready to welcome all of us into that elite. As he once told a reporter, “I have the greatest respect—and it is continually reaffirmed by my observation—for the public. The public is a lot smarter than one gives it credit for.”
De Montebello left all our editors who heard him ready to rush to the nearest museum, and that led us to the focus of this annual Platinum issue. As longtime chroniclers of the Sarasota cultural scene, we thought we knew all about the Ringling Museum, but the more we learned about what’s happening there right now, the more we realized the museum was the perfect subject for this issue. Platinum showcases the treasures and peak experiences that most enrich our lives and our community, and surely we have no greater treasure than the Ringling Museum.
The foundation and sparkplug of Sarasota’s cultural fame, the museum first attracted artists and art lovers here (it still does, of course) and helped grow other creative institutions—Asolo Rep, Ringling College, Sarasota Opera, to name a few. It also hosts lectures, special events and performing arts, including the terrific new Ringling International Arts Festival; and it’s home to an amazing piece of Americana, the history of the circus, and to one of America’s greatest estates, the splendidly restored Cà d’Zan. Long known for its magnificent Baroque collection, the Ringling has expanded enormously in recent years. It’s now one of the 20 largest museums in North America, and it’s preparing to shine a light on its impressive collection of contemporary works—soon to include one of James Turrell’s wildly popular skyspaces, a permanent installation that will showcase Florida’s dazzling light.
You’ll find a number of stories about the museum in this issue, including a look at its founding director, Chick Austin, who still inspires young curators today. We also lead a tour of some of the most exciting museums around the globe, and highlight museum-quality objects and shopping close to home.
De Montebello argues that man’s ability to create objects of exquisite and eternal beauty is the ultimate affirmation of our faith in humanity. Somehow, over and over, we rise above our limitations and travails and envision new works that will astonish and inspire those who come after us. Right here in Sarasota, we have an incredible cache of those works, magnificently housed and displayed. As we face our own cataclysmic events, from financial and political crises to the pollution in our Gulf, we can experience for ourselves why museums matter, and why they’re worth discovering and rediscovering all over again.