Maintaining the Morse Museum’s Mystique

By Jay Boyar

When Laurence Ruggiero left a stormy but successful stint at the Ringling Museum, he’d barely heard of Louis Comfort Tiffany. But Hugh McKean felt he’d found the right man to protect and enhance this cultural treasure.

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Laurence Ruggiero is flanked by mounted daffodil capitals that were salvaged decades ago from Laurelton Hall, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s ruined estate. Many aspects of Tiffany’s home, including the lovely daffodil terrace, have been reassembled at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.

If you were to spot Laurence Ruggiero drifting through the galleries of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, you’d probably never peg him as the guy who runs the place. Based on his unpretentious air and semi-casual attire, you might conclude that he was, say, a retired professor from the Northeast — an art-loving tourist who enjoyed peering at the pretty Tiffany lamps and windows through his oversized horn-rimmed glasses.

But there’s more to this unassuming man than meets the eye.

“He’s an unknown gem in Winter Park,” offers Blair Culpepper, a former president of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce who has known Ruggiero for nearly three decades.

“He certainly doesn’t go out of his way to take credit or to make headlines or to be in the public eye,” agrees Harold Ward III, president and chairman of the museum’s supporting foundations. “But he certainly is, in his own way, very much in charge of what he’s doing.”

One recent morning, I stop by the Morse, which bills itself as housing the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Ruggiero greets me wearing gray slacks and a Kelly green polo shirt, over which he’s slung a toast-brown jacket. Light-hued shoes complete the outfit which, while indicating a lively color sense, is far from executive-standard.

As he extends his hand, he suggests we head to his second-floor office — a room whose clutter does nothing to dispel the impression that he cannot possibly be in charge of this world-class cultural treasure. The place is crammed with books, papers, photos and paintings, as well as harder-to-identify flotsam and jetsam.

Such apparent chaos would be jarring in the office of any prominent executive. But it comes as a particular shock when contrasted with the fastidiously displayed art objects on view to the public, just one level below.

“I see his office more like a studio,” explains George Sexton, head of a Washington, D.C., design firm who has worked with Ruggiero for more than 25 years. “If you look at a lot of artists’ studios, their objects of inspiration are all around them. It’s very ordered for him, but for you or me or a casual observer, there’s a certain disarray.”

As we settle in for a chat in a conference nook, a few feet from his desk, Ruggiero rearranges some bric-a-brac to accommodate our arrival. At first a bit reticent, he soon warms to the subject at hand: His life.

It’s “a good time” for this talk, the 65-year-old director decides. “I’m old enough that there’s some enjoyment in thinking back.”

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Two magnificent stained-glass works, Tree of Life and Butterfly Window, highlight a gallery feathering an assortment of Laurelton Hall objects.

Ruggiero may not be a professor — at least, not any more — and he is certainly not a retiree. But he is from the Northeast — Patterson, N. J., to be more precise — and was raised in nearby Wayne. He was about 12 when his parents sent him to a boarding school run by Benedictine monks in Morristown, an affluent town about a half-hour south.

“There was a wonderful, wonderful English department,” he recalls in a deep, relaxed voice that still carries a hint of New Jersey nasality. “That was my main interest.” But during his high-school years, his family visited Italy for a few months for what Ruggiero calls “a ‘roots’ experience” that turned out to be much more.

“I remember distinctly being at the Uffizi [Gallery] in Florence and being forced, on a hot summer day, to go through everything and see Madonna after Madonna after Madonna,” he says in a way that makes me think he’s contemplating some private joke. His thick white hair, parted in the middle — not to mention his prominent eyebrows and those oversized horn-rims — makes him look a bit like an amused owl.

“I will never forget that my mother was there with the guidebook trying to explain the differences among these Madonnas, and I just couldn’t see it. I wanted to know! So that was kind of a significant experience.”

After that experience, Ruggiero began frequenting art museums in New York City and collecting  post cards featuring great paintings. Although he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania as an English major, he remained passionate about visual art. He even took a class in Italian baroque, a decision that proved pivotal in more ways than one.

He ended up attending Penn’s graduate school and earning a master’s degree in art history with a focus on Italian baroque. (His favorite artist, Italy’s Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is credited with creating the baroque style of sculpture.) In that same class, he also met his future wife, the former Virginia Fornaci.

“I called him and asked if I could borrow his book,” she says when I call her later, quaintly concerned that this admission might make her younger self sound overly forward. “We never did go out until after graduation.” They married in 1970 and have a 23-year-old son, John, an artist and musician whom they adopted from Peru.

Still at Penn, Ruggiero then earned an art history Ph.D with an emphasis on modern art and architecture. He taught those subjects at the University of Illinois, but when he finally realized how little money there was in teaching art, he enrolled at Boston University and earned an MBA.

Now grounded in both art and business, he landed a job in the finance department of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, eventually becoming the assistant to the museum’s president.

After four years there he moved to California to head the Oakland Museum Association, an assignment he describes as basically a fundraising gig.

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In addition to its Tiffany collection, the Morse boasts galleries featuring paintings and statuary by late 19th-century American artists.

In 1985, Ruggiero moved to Florida as the director of Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art, which was owned by the State of Florida. He hadn’t thought of this state as a major cultural center but his interest had been piqued; he remembered that his professor in that pivotal Italian baroque class would sometimes decamp to the Ringling for research.

Ruggiero stayed with that museum until 1992, overseeing its renovation and restoration, which the New York Times hailed as a “triumph,” praising “the order, the lucidity, the imagination and the technological skill” of the project. Prior to Ruggiero’s arrival, according to the Times, the Ringling “was thought to be a subtropical sleeping beauty in a state of terminal coma.”

But if Ruggiero made many friends in Sarasota, some there were unhappy “because he was a businessman and he was doing the right thing,” says Culpepper, who was treasurer at the Ringling during Ruggiero’s tenure.

“You couldn’t walk on campus [the Ringling grounds] without being offered drugs,” Ruggiero reflects. “There was a loan-sharking operation. The Medieval Fair was corrupt. It was unbelievable what was going on.”

Indeed, his tenure at the Ringling was stormy. He managed to anger a faction of trustees, volunteers and, more ominously, several influential legislators. Even some Sarasota locals who gave Ruggiero due credit for his accomplishments in revitalizing the galleries groused that he he ignored the “circus” aspect of the museum’s heritage.

When the death threats began, Ruggiero was rattled. “This was to the point where, literally, people called up and said I should get out of town while I could still walk,” says Ruggiero, shaking his head. “I mean, it was very bad.”

Even as he was about to return to academia —where they don’t break legs, just the occasional heart — the Morse Museum came into his life.

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Ruggiero, reflected here in Tree of Life, says he was overwhelmed when he first realized the scope of the Morse’s collection.

When Ruggiero began speaking with Hugh McKean, the museum’s original director, about coming to work there, he was hardly an expert on Louis Comfort Tiffany.

“I didn’t know who the hell Tiffany was,” Ruggiero flatly admits. “Nobody knew about Tiffany. He wasn’t taken seriously.” So when he finally saw the Morse’s Tiffany collection, he was overwhelmed.

“Oh my God!” he remembers thinking. “I can’t believe it! This stuff is gorgeous! I had no idea!”

Ruggiero signed on with the Morse in 1992 and has taken Tiffany very seriously ever since. He was instrumental in the museum’s 1995 move to its current location at Park and Canton avenues in Winter Park, and he has overseen such major projects as the addition of the Tiffany Chapel in 1999 and completion in 2011 of a new wing recreating portions of Laurelton Hall, Tiffany’s Long Island mansion.

Ruggiero now feels that the Morse is essentially complete. However, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of creating a separate facility to focus on Florida art.

If Tiffany’s works have been Ruggiero’s inspiration at the Morse, Mc-Kean’s words have been his guide.

“We’d have these long lunches over at the Langford Hotel,” the director muses, painting a picture of those meetings with both voice and hand gestures. He adds that they tended to dine outdoors, near the now-demolished hotel’s pool, where McKean “could shout and I could shout because he wasn’t hearing too well.”

Asked for an example of the principles that McKean, who died in 1995, imparted at those Langford lunches, Ruggiero pauses for only a moment. “Having art in your life is a really important aspect of the human experience,” he offers. “Art has a civilizing influence.”

McKean and his wife, Jeannette Genius McKean, whose grandfather was Charles Hosmer Morse, the industrialist and philanthropist who helped shape early Winter Park, felt that they had “an important responsibility to their community,” says Ruggiero.

McKean, according to Ruggiero, insisted that Morse avoid attendance-boosting gimmicks and crowd-pleasing traveling exhibitions unrelated to the museum’s mission. That mission was, and remains, showcasing Tiffany’s body of work as well as late 19th- and early 20th-centruy American pottery, painting, graphics and decorative art.

Such a stance is the enviable result of the museum’s endowment, which makes fundraising basically unnecessary. “This museum knows what it is, and attracts people who appreciate what it is,” Ruggiero insists, characteristically positioning himself as McKean’s steward. “We don’t proselytize.”

Clearly, proselytizing is not required. The Morse, which receives no public funds, draws 55,000 to 101,000 visitors per year. (The figures spiked when the Laurelton Hall wing opened.) People come from all over the country and the world to marvel at what is, without question, a one-of-a-kind cultural treasure.

“No one would be prouder or happier than the McKeans would be,” says Lewis Sharp, who has known Ruggiero for decades and sits on the Morse foundation board. The museum has “even gone beyond what he [Hugh McKean] imagined.”

Although Ruggiero’s passion for art is beyond question, he admits he has never been much of an artist himself. However, he adds that “in old age” he’s begun to “fool around with watercolors,” which he prefers to call “doodles,” not “art.”

What the ever-modest director doesn’t say is that he personally takes charge of the design and display of Morse shows — a hands-on approach that is rare in a museum director.

“This is an unheralded side of him,” designer Sexton points out. “He’s a very accomplished exhibit designer.”

You might say, in fact, that the Morse itself is Laurence Ruggiero’s masterpiece.

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The Morse moved into spacious new quarters in 1995, but it still houses only a fraction of the overall collection.

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