The result of a worldwide quest, The Society of the Four Arts lands an extraordinary new leader in Dr. Philip Rylands
Founded in 1936, The Society of the Four Arts is one of the oldest cultural institutions in Florida, as well as one of its most esteemed, so the decision of who should be at its helm was not to be taken lightly. And it wasn’t. Following Dr. David Breneman’s retirement announcement last December, The Four Arts board of trustees appointed a six-person member committee to work alongside a top executive search firm that specializes in the art world, and after reviewing numerous excellent candidates from across the globe, selected Dr. Philip Rylands. Rylands was the founding director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, and served most recently as its director emeritus. Following the famed art collector and socialite’s death in 1979, Rylands took responsibility for the operations and development of Guggenheim’s house and collection, and through his leadership, guided the collection to become a landmark institution of global cultural significance. “It’s rare to have someone with Rylands’ global vision of culture. To have someone with his background, not only as a director of a museum, but also having created it and taken it to new levels, is remarkable,” says Sofia Vollmer Maduro, The Society of the Four Arts’ director of education.
So impressed was Rylands by The Four Arts that he gladly came out of retirement to take on the role of president and CEO. “It has a huge repertoire of offerings,” says Rylands about the 501 (c)3 nonprofit charity that offers a dynamic lineup of cultural programing, including notable speakers, concerts, films, educational programs and art exhibitions—not to mention beautiful sculpture and botanical gardens, a children’s library, the King Library and a state-of-the-art educational facility. “I’ve been more about a rather narrow range of visual arts modernism, so it’s a great challenge.” Rylands is far too humble. Under his leadership, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in an 18th-century palazzo, became the most visited museum in Venice after the Doge’s Palace. “Peggy would have been so thrilled to discover she was right up there with The Villa Borghese in Rome, the ruins of Pompeii and the Vatican,” he asserts. Rylands’ interest in the arts dates back as far as he can remember. “In boarding school, during my teens, I got into trouble for going to art exhibitions in London,” he recalls. The die was cast. He would go on to earn his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts with honors, and in 1981, his doctorate in art history from King’s College at the University of Cambridge. But academia was not to be his only pursuit. “When you become a museum director, you opt out of becoming a scholarly art historian and become a generalist, so, splendidly, you have your foot in both camps,” says Rylands. “You leave the solitary world of libraries and archives and enter the world of making things happen. Sofia and I, and all the other wonderful staff here, are going to make things happen!”
Furthering an appreciation of the arts for future generations is arguably Rylands’ greatest passion. He’s especially enthusiastic about the children’s library which welcomes students who are close by, as well as those who are bussed in by The Four Arts for field trips, at its own expense. “Our motto is ‘Four Arts for everyone,’ and the children’s library manifests that,” says Rylands. “It has a huge interface with the community. The schoolteachers are so enthusiastic, which is a fundamental component of engaging the children. They are the gateway,” he states.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more fervent champion of the arts. “It’s essential to have culture if you’re going to be a civilized society,” says Rylands. “Everyone’s lives are enhanced spiritually by it. That’s what makes The Four Arts so impressive; we’re keeping cultural matters at the heart of people’s lives.”
The well-known expert is also excited about living in America! “I’ve had interaction with the American government, worked with American organizations, taught at American universities, but I’ve never lived in America before,” says Rylands. “We’re delighted by the opportunity to come to America and find a new horizon,” he says. “We’re not ready to set off into the sunset just yet.”