The Sarasota Art Museum’s new executive director wants to turn a hidden gem into the crown jewel.
SRQ Review | January 2022
in visual arts
Head to the Sarasota Museum of Art these days and it’s a veritable hive of activity. From the atypical career retrospective on the painter Judith Linhares, to seeing the artist organize a mini-exhibition within her own show in tribute to the artists who inspired and pushed her – to the launch of two new series of exhibitions –On point, showcasing and celebrating a single work of art at a time, and In the making, which dedicates space to emerging artists, Sarasota’s newest museum seems determined to claim its position as a premier art institution in a crowded field. “It’s a jewelry box,” says Virginia Shearer, who joined the Sarasota Art Museum as executive director in early 2021. “And we have to find a way to open it up to everyone.”
RQS: What makes an exhibit suitable for the Sarasota Museum of Art? How to reconcile entertainment and education?
Virginia Sheer: What’s really special about the Sarasota Art Museum is that it’s founded on the premise that contemporary art is changing, evolving from this moment we’re all living in, but it’s also about our collective lived human experience and our collective consciousness. We want to capture that by making sure we always have an exhibit that has a message or theme that resonates for the moment we are in. We are looking for artists with a purpose. They put their passion and their work behind a message they want to convey. And we are interested in bringing those messages to light. But we also always think about the diversity of materials and the diversity of artists. I am also interested in exhibitions where we can bring together several artists. And that didn’t really happen here at the Sarasota Art Museum. I want to go to collective exhibitions on a larger scale.
RQS: How would you describe the current voice of the museum and where do you want it to be?
Shearer: We have created a sort of university-type institution. And scholarship is extremely important and must be the foundation of everything we do. What we need to do is really hold on to our roots, but also look more at the balance of being a community museum. That’s where the game comes in. We have a new perspective, a new voice and we fill a niche here in Sarasota which is what’s new, what’s to come, the pulse of what what contemporary artists think. But we really need to push harder to make our voice more welcoming, playful and, dare I say, even fun.
RQS: Why is play important in a museum?
Shearer: Because people learn while having fun. The best way to learn is when you get lost and waste time, because the pursuit you’re working in is so consuming that you lose track of it. And that’s where you really start to get even more creative and learn even more. We want our experience to be something that helps engage people in that flow. This is where the learning is seamless.
RQS: How to achieve it?
Shearer: We seek to incorporate more participatory experiences. In April, we will inaugurate a large collective exhibition entitled State of the Art 2020: Constructs. And this exhibition will include performance art, video art, installation art, paintings, sculpture. And the idea is whether we can get more work that invites participation and interactivity in the galleries. This will only amplify the experience. People will come out of, “We just have to walk and behave a certain way.”
RQS: star wars Where StarTrek?
Shearer: star wars. Everyday. In fact, I have a t-shirt that says: “The Force is feminine”. My husband has one with Darth Vader that says “I am your father”. One year I gave all the cousins and kids Millennium Falcon crew t-shirts. I’m also obsessed with George Lucas and can’t wait for the museum to open in LA.
SRQ: Is it the shared emphasis on the intersection between education and play?
Shearer: People just learn in different ways. With regard to museums: for auditory learners, there is the visit; for visual learners, there’s everything you can take away from just looking at the art. But you can also read. And for those who love to experience the world intrinsically, you can wander around on your own. For people who are in a group, you can have these social events. The extrinsic learner and the kinesthetic learners, you can join a dance class or do anything. We have to be ready for all because we are all so diverse. And that’s how we’ll design the programs. It’s an element that I’m going to bring to the equation here that wasn’t quite in place.
RQS: How do you imagine the museum of the future?
Shearer: Museums will always, always, always be an important part of our lives. Humans are endlessly fascinating, and what we make is that residue of our lives. And other humans are interested in this residue, in what happened before. And there’s nothing like the real thing. I firmly believe that where the magic happens is between us and the original artwork. Many artists have said it beautifully: a work of art is never complete until the viewer is there before the work of art and makes it whole. And I believe it.