A. Everett "Chick" Austin

Magician of the Modern,.

Ring-a-ling May 2001

Magician of the Modern, by Eugene Gaddis is a new comprehensive biography of A. Everett "Chick" Austin. When Chick Austin was Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, he transformed the conservative Museum into a curatorial epicenter of art in America in the 1920's, 30's and 40's. He gave the first major Picasso retrospective in the United States and early on acclaimed and purchased works by Dali, Mondrian, Miro, Max Ernst and Calder. He was a connoisseur of Renaissance, Baroque paintings and Rococo decorative arts and he created provocative installations relating Old Masters with modern. Chick Austin immersed himself in all forms of art integrating photography, film, architecture, music, theatre, dance and even magic as part of the mission and spirit of the Museum. He was a skilled painter, and was very interested in architecture.

He designed his Palladian style home in Hartford (now a national historic landmark) and a contemporary exhibition wing and theatre at the Atheneum. Theatre, opera and ballet were always important aspects of his artistry and, with the urging of a friend he brought Georges Balanchine to America. We have a special connection with this creative visionary because after leaving the Wadsworth Atheneum he became Ringling Museum's first director. The following article is based upon two chapters: The Baroque and the Big Top and Home to Helen that relate Chick Austin's experiences during Ringling Museum's first decade as a public art museum.

Governor Millard Caldwell in 1946 offered Chick Austin directorship of the State's newly acquired museum. Chick was living in Hollywood, California a few months after leaving Wadsworth Atheneum. The position gave him an opportunity to return to a museum world where he could best express his talent as a connoisseur and his commitment to education. John Ringling's estate had the largest collection of Baroque paintings in the Country and this was very attractive to him. Chick accepted the directorship with the stipulation that he would work a seven and half month-year. It was important for him to have time in summer and fall to devote to a playhouse he had just built in Windham, New Hampshire and he wanted flexibility to travel in Europe. During summers at the Windham Playhouse, Chick provided lodging and work for many young actors including Rod Steiger, Jack Carter, Jason Robards and Broderick Crawford.

The situation Chick faced at the Ringling Museum was quite different from that at the Wadsworth Atheneum - " instead of building an extraordinary collection of paintings he would have to rescue one." The paintings were in a "precarious condition" left unattended in Sarasota's subtropical climate for many years. Surfaces of paintings were cracked and covered with mold and mildew and rain leaked down the building's walls. The Museum had no administrative offices, work areas and restrooms. There was no professional staff - only a doorman, a business manager hired by the State and a tour guide who worked for tips. Chick did have the advantage of having Karl Bickel, the former president of United Press International, as an influential advocate. The Ringling Museum was under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Control (which also oversaw the State's universities). The Board quickly approved emergency appropriations for the conservation of paintings. During his first year, Chick finished painting half of the galleries in colors he mixed himself and began to overlay the walls in wood furring covered with brocade.

Ca'd'Zan was untouched in the decade since John Ringling's death - John Ringling's clothes still hung in the closet and shaving implements were left next to his barber's chair. The interiors were faded and needed refurbishing. The grounds were overgrown. In the first year, Chick began "redecorating" (not restoring) Ca'd'Zan and for months he was seen cutting and stitching brocade on a portable Singer machine. December 15, 1946 half of the Art Galleries and Ca'd'Zan opened to the public with an astounding attendance of 10,000 people.

In 1947 Chick received appropriations to begin a circus museum. He began the remodeling and extension of an existing building that he designed in a round tent shape. Circus objects and memorabilia had been stored in the building and he obtained other items such as circus wagons and costumes which were stored at RBB&B Winter Quarters. The new Circus Galleries were opened March, 1948 and it became the first circus museum in the United States.

Also in 1947, the State funded the acquisition of thirteen acres in front of the Ringling property. An esplanade lined with royal palms was created with a road from Tamiami Trail to the Art Museum's entrance. Chick Austin moved several sculptures to this area from out-of-the-way places on the property.

Chick could not stay away from performing in the theatre. He joined an amateur drama group, The Players of Sarasota, and continued his connection with them during his tenure. Also at times, he performed as a magician, The Great Osram, to raise money for student art education. Chick Austin purchased a 1920's stucco two-story house at 320 Delmar Ave. in Whitfield Estates which he called "Termite Towers." During his years in Sarasota, he renovated and furnished it eclectically with money from the sale of his cottage, and money from his trust fund. He also had a passion for cars. He was attracted to their speed and elegant styling (Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Bentley) and frequently bought and sold them. He and his wife, Helen, decided she would continue to live in California with their children, Sally and David, for a little longer so she could be near her sister and friends including Angela Lansbury. Later they returned to Hartford when David and Sally attended boarding school and college. Chick would motor to Connecticut to be with them at Christmas and during his off-periods at the Museum.

In spring 1948, he organized a 3-week seminar in conjunction with FSU called "The History of Art." For this high level seminar he brought in many friends who were national authorities and they discussed topics ranging from Rubens to modern architecture and surrealistic cinema. To compliment the seminar he presented the Museum's first major loan exhibition "Masterpieces of Modern Painting". It was the first comprehensive exhibition of twentieth-century art in Florida and included Dali, Miro, and Mondrian. At the end of 1948 Chick made his first acquisition for the Ringling Museum - Peter Paul Rubens Portrait of the Archduke Ferdinand (1635) purchased for $30,000. The second painting he acquired (1949) was The Martyrdom of a Bishop Saint later called The Martyrdom of Saint Januarius (Gallery 9) by the shadowy seventeenth-century artist known as Monsu Desiderio. Chick Austin was fascinated by the turbulent imagination of this mysterious artist and assembled thirty works by Desiderio from all over the world. The exhibition catalogue was the first monograph on the artist. Chick Austin considered the artist one of the great painters of architectural fantasy whose influence he traced from 18th Century Gothic Revival to the modern movement of surrealism. The exhibition attracted international acclaim because of its novelty and connections to 20th Century art. The Desiderio exhibit opened up inquiry that led to the discovery that Desiderio was a pseudonym for Francois de Nome, a French artist living in Naples.

At the same time, Chick purchased from art dealer, Adolf Loewi, the dismantled 1798 Asolo Theatre. It was something he had coveted since hearing about it in the 1930's. It was purchased for $8,000 and temporarily installed in the Ringling Auditorium, now Gallery 21 - Gift Shop. He opened the Theatre, February 1952, with a double bill of two short 18th Century operas, La Serva Padrona by Pergolesi and Bastien and Bastienne by Mozart (written at age twelve). Eugene Berman did the sets and costumes for Pergolesi and Chick designed for the Mozart production.

In 1950 he made important acquisitions: An Act of Mercy, by Bernardo Strozzi and the series of fifteen paintings depicting the Disguises of Harlequin by the 18th Century Venetian painter, Giovanni Ferretti. Later that year he acquired from Loewi, Glory and Magnanimity, by Giovanni Tiepolo. One of his last acquisitions was Nicolas Poussin's, The Ecstasy of Saint Paul.

By 1954, Chick Austin became restless and expressed to Kenneth Donahue, Assistant Director, that he didn't expect to remain much longer and that he was "getting pretty fed up with the place and all the political problems and difficulty working in a public institution." He considered buying a small museum in Fayence France. Ground breaking began for the construction of the shell for the Asolo Theatre and he wanted to stay to see it through to completion. As the Asolo construction progressed in 1956, it fueled a fire caused by his detractors. Political enemies of Chick's supporters launched a relentless campaign against him in the Tampa Morning Tribune with the inflammatory headline, "State Funds go to Theatre while Museum Deteriorates." He was well defended by friends and the Sarasota Herald Tribune published many rebuttals. Chick did not return to the Ringling Museum late fall 1956. He was gravely ill home in Hartford with Helen, David and Sally. Most of his life he had been a chain smoker and was once described as having a "carton-a-day habit". For many months he was weak and had a persistent cough. After suffering with severe back pain he was finally diagnosed as having a cancerous tumor that had spread from his lungs to his vertebra. The nature and seriousness of his illness was not known to anyone but his family. February 1957, during his absence, Ken Donahue in order to counteract criticism directed at Chick Austin, presented a retrospective exhibition to commemorate Ringling's first decade as a public art museum. Acquisitions and Achievements: the Ringling Museum 1946 to 1956 was in essence a tribute to Chick Austin and highlighted many of his greatest acquisitions for the museum. Chick Austin passed away March 29, 1957 and was buried near his playhouse in Windham, New Hampshire. His friends all over the world were shocked, devastated and expressed the loss of his genius, zest for living and generousity. During a memorial concert in the Rubens Gallery Ken Donahue said of Chick Austin, "He not only perfected what had been begun by John Ringling in Sarasota, but he fought for ten years against the Philistine who wished to make of this museum something less."

Editor's Note: Magician of the Modern is available in the our Museum Gift Shop. Eugene
Gaddis is Archivist at the Wadsworth Atheneum and Curator of the Austin House.

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