Anne-Marie Russell describes herself as more of a builder than a maintainer and she is ready to move on this week after six years as founding executive director and chief curator of Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College.
Russell shepherded the museum in the old Sarasota High School building through numerous twists and turns in the final stages of restoration toward a glittery opening in December 2019. It attracted big crowds to colorful and varied contemporary exhibits until the pandemic forced the museum to shut down for more than five months.
Ringling College announced her departure in November, when President Larry Thompson said in a statement, “When we were able to secure the talents of this world-class star of the art world five years ago, we knew that there would come a time when Anne-Marie would move on to new opportunities.”
Russell said an announcement of her next job is expected within a couple of weeks, but she will remain as a curatorial consultant for the museum for at least three months as the college conducts a search for her successor. And she has planned out exhibitions and related programs through 2022.
As she departs, the museum is filled with two floors of large-scale paintings, photographs and sculptures, including a floor-to-ceiling maze of twisted red fabric-covered balls by the artist Janaina Tschäpe in a show that Russell curated herself.
The museum is considered a “kunsthalle,” a German term for museums or other facilities without permanent collections that host temporary and traveling exhibitions, compared to a venue like The Ringling Museum, which has its own collection and hosts traveling exhibits.
Russell, 53, said her late mentor Bruce Ferguson, who was instrumental in establishing the global biennial art movement, “told me about a decade ago, ‘We’re builders not maintainers.’ Entrepreneurial startups. That’s what I do.”
Still, “it’s not easy to walk away” from the Sarasota Art Museum.
“This place is embedded in my heart. I will be advocating for this place for the rest of my life. It will just be fun to hang out here as a civilian. I feel good that I got it off to a good start,” she said.
Change is important in her life and for the museum, she said.
“It’s a contemporary art museum. Let’s not fossilize it,” she said. “Change and evolution are different things. Evolution is change over time. John Cage, the composer, said: ‘I don’t know why people are so afraid of the new ideas. It’s the old ones that I’m afraid of.’”
Over the last six years, she said her staff has “laid down some good DNA. Let’s hope it evolves.”
And she wants to ensure that the museum “is not tied to a single person, so you have a cult of personality,” she said. “This place is for all and of all. It should never be tied to individuals.”
The museum opened to great fanfare just months before the pandemic forced it to close. Supporters spent 16 years raising money for the project, which attracted interest from contemporary art lovers and alumni of Sarasota High School, eager to see the long-closed building transformed.
Coming in the months ahead are exhibits featuring work by Robert Colescott, who was the first African-American artist to represent the United States at the Venice biennale. In the third floor tower gallery in the summer, will be an exhibition featuring a combination of the architecture firm Aranda/Lasch with Terrol Dew Johnson, a Native American basketmaker. “They used the cutting edge technology of the architect with the traditional techniques of the basketmaker. Another show will feature artist Charles McGill, who creates “stunning relief sculptures from repurposed golf bags,” she said.
Attendance at the museum has been limited to about 100 per day since reopening in September. In the opening months, some days attracted as many as 500 patrons.
“We are trying to make this a safe environment,¨ Russell said. “We have people who say they don’t go anywhere but feel comfortable coming here. Some people just come to eat and shop.”
With a variety of outdoor exhibits, including the multicolored swings of Los Trompos, and the recently arrived John Henry’s Complexus statue (moved temporarily from U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue), there is a lot to be seen without worrying about being indoors, she said.
“You can’t get away from art here,” she said.
The Sarasota Art Museum is at 1001 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 941-309-4300; sarasotaartmuseum.org
Jay Handelman, arts editor and theater critic, has been an editor and writer at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since 1984. Read more of his arts and entertainment stories. And please support local journalism by subscribing to the Herald-Tribune.