On a mid-summer day, Matthew McLendon walks past the long stretch of offices lining a window overlooking the John and Mable Ringling Museum’s grounds, facing the recently opened Center for Asian Art. His office looks out onto the open-air cubicles within the museum’s education building, the conservation department right below, the museum’s library and archives adjacent. The perimeter of his office lined with piles of exhibition catalogs, a trace of the shows he’s put together as the Ringling’s curator of Modern and Contemporary Art since he arrived in 2010.

Just returned from a two-week trip to China, McLendon sits behind a corner desk, two monitors facing him, a cork board filled with kind notes from colleagues, friends and artists to his right. Behind him, a bookshelf filled to the brim, Post-It notes sticking out of almost every title. McLendon is tall and thin, fair-skinned, a big smile across his face, his hair short—he’s dressed dapper yet casual, a purple checked button-down, rolled-up sleeves and charcoal slacks, his demeanor light, easy to draw a laugh, especially of himself.

As McLendon shows me around the building, competing to grab the handle each time we pass through a doorway, his unyielding hospitality confirms his southern roots. The Florida native grew up in Palatka, an historic center for trade and early settlers. A home to Timucuan Indians, Palatka boasts a rich, complex history like many southern towns. Its population has grown beyond that of an everyone-knows-everyone city, but like many rural communities, friendliness is important, forthrightness almost innate. The place is still very much a part of McLendon, evident in the stretch of his charm.

McLendon’s mother grew up there and his parents built a home in the grove where he and his two sisters came of age. He remembers how during the summer, his sisters would lay around the family’s pool reading Vogue magazine. McLendon, the youngest, would sit quietly nearby as not to be shooed away, listening to his sisters talk about their hopes of traveling the world; he would sink into the background, but as soon as they left he’d rush over and voraciously thumb through the magazines. “It gave me a very clear sense that there was something beyond Palatka that I wanted to be a part of,” he says. “I would be amazed by this notion of the wide world, of utter sophistication.” Of leaving home, he remembers, “There was never a moment I wasn’t aware that I didn’t want that.”

All these years later, McLendon serves at the helm of one of the Southeast’s most inventive and ambitious art programs. The Ringling’s gallery space rivals the largest Southeastern contemporary museums, and under the Art of Our Time initiative—spearheaded in 2011 by McLendon and Curator of Performance Dwight Currie—it seems only a matter of time before The Ringling sets a national precedent. The museum plans to open a new contemporary project space, the Keith D. and Linda L. Monda Gallery of Contemporary Art, with its first installation of works by Anne Patterson this fall, in addition to a forthcoming pavilion for its contemporary glass art collection in 2017.

In the early 20th century, John Ringling and his wife Mable Burton began to amass a collection, later revered for its unrivaled collection of Rubens’ work. In 1928, Ringling commissioned John H. Phillips to design and build the palatial U-shaped building on his parcel along Sarasota Bay. Ringling hoped that his collection would become a cultural center in the Deep South, leaving his collection to “the people of Florida.”

In 1946, after weathering the depression and the recovery of a funding stream, the museum acquired its first director, A. Everett “Chick” Austin, who served until his death in 1957. McLendon praises Austin’s vision and says it shaped the Art of Our Time initiative. “He was key to so many things we hold dear about American culture,” McLendon stresses. Austin’s approach to museums as the “house of muses” was unparalleled in mid-20th century museum practice in that he believed that all of the art should be in dialogue with each other, challenging antiquated notions of 18th century taxonomy, the departure point of the modern museum. “I’m always very conscious of bringing that legacy back to the Ringling,” McLendon says. “We always ask, ‘What would Chick do?’”

While McLendon works with contemporary art, he hasn’t always been focused on living artists. As an undergrad, he studied within Florida State University’s College of Music as an aspiring opera singer. But as his interest in pursuing performing arts waned, he tacked on art history degrees, leaving FSU with two bachelor of arts degrees. “It wasn’t until I decided I was burnt out with music that I needed to do something else with my life, but I knew I wanted to stay in the arts,” he says. He took an internship at the Tate museum in London, working in the education department. This was 1999, the Tony Blair years of “cool Britannia.” “As soon as I stepped foot in London, I believed in reincarnation. I never wanted to leave,” McLendon says.

Later, he was accepted into the graduate program at the Courtauld Institute, an independent college within the University of London and a leader in the study of art history—a foil to American counterparts such as Princeton and Harvard. For his masters and doctoral degrees, he studied under the umbrella of 20th century avant-gardism and penned his dissertation on Italian Futurism, focusing on Filippo Tomasso Marinetti’s manifestos. “What drew me to the Futurists is that they were a pan-cultural revolution. They didn’t just want to revolutionize visual arts,” he says. “They wanted to revolutionize literature, theatre, film, photography and your entire life,” which complemented his cross-disciplinary background.

McLendon in 2002 returned to the Tate as the interim curator of adult learning. Shortly after, he took a position at the Cornell Museum of Fine Art at Rollins College stateside. Back in Florida, he began to work with living artists for the first time. “I realized that was my calling,” he says. “From that point, I’ve never looked back.”

Ready for the next step, McLendon took a job with The Ringling—when he was making his move in 2010, people were speculative. Until his arrival, The Ringling was known for its European collection of Baroque paintings. Ann Albritton, a modern and contemporary art historian who teaches at Ringling College, says that the program has changed “radically” since McLendon arrived. Before his term, the one contemporary show anybody could remember was a Francesco Clemente exhibition brought to the Ringling in 1985 by Michael Auping.

Of the opportunity to grow the Ringling’s contemporary scope, McLendon says, “The Ringling isn’t burdened by history or tradition, because there hasn’t been a long enough history for the contemporary here.” For some, this might be a daunting task—to build a program from scratch—but he took it as a means to circumvent the deep-seated traditions of museums entrenched in medium specificity. He parroted some institution’s pervasive reluctance to change. “People say, ‘We’ve always done it this way, why change?’” Fortunately, this was not a query McLendon would field at The Ringling.

The community took to McLendon quickly. “I’ve never been embraced like I was embraced by Sarasota. It was overwhelming,” he says. While many see Sarasota as a retirement community, there is a rousing, hive-like buzz within the arts community. As soon as McLendon arrived, he and Currie set in on Art of Our Time.

Museums across the world, especially larger institutions, often base their departments on the notion of antiquated classification, works on paper or sculpture and so forth. In many ways, medium specificity has disjointed the museum—there are little shared interests across departments. More to the point, that type of stringent approach to an artist’s work has created a chasm to which many emerging artists fall prey, privileging consistency and a disinterest in new forms of art that don’t land so neatly into categories. “At The Ringling, I’m not encumbered by that,” McLendon says. “I’m increasingly interested in breaking holes in notions of high and low. Artists exist in milieus, and if we could think more in terms of milieu than discreet genres, we would have a more accurate representation of the actual process of creation.”

Museums subsist on the idea they are repositories of knowledge, places in which history takes form. Moreover, the museum has always been the common denominator for cultural production; any work on the walls of an institution attains a critical cache it cannot attain elsewhere, making it incumbent upon museums to position an artist’s work accordingly. As museums up contemporary programming, the work curators put on display becomes more urgent, more relevant and, of course, more contemporary. An audience can walk into the museum armed simply with knowledge of current events and everyday experience to engage with art.

 “I want there to be as much visibility as possible in my program,” McLendon says. “So when people come here, they have better possibility to see themselves represented in some way. That’s what makes connections, when you start to see yourself represented in the museum. Ultimately, I am a white, middle-class, gay guy from North Florida. I’m very mindful of that and always trying to think against that. Who is that making me blind to?”

McLendon as a student believed the museum as a repository of knowledge, objects and histories was enough, but he doesn’t think that can be everything anymore. “We have got to find a way to be a center of serious dialogue, through the arts and the lens of the artists,” he claims. There’s a timbre of urgency in his voice, one that carries with it the past year of traumatic events. McLendon was particularly affected by the mass shooting at the Pulse club in Orlando, feeling inextricably tied to the attack as he had grown up in those spaces. He explains, “I was a big club kid in Orlando during the mid to late ‘90s. Those clubs were where I began to become me.”

McLendon’s first show at the Ringling was Beyond Bling, a group show that detailed ways in which hip-hop’s inimitable gravitas affected artists working in the 21st century. The show proved to be a watershed moment for The Ringling’s commitment to the contemporary—varied in medium, genre and the artists included, foreshadowing what was to come from the reinvigorated contemporary program. In six years, McLendon has exceeded any expectations waged, curating a wide swath of artists from all tiers of the art world(s). R. Luke DuBois’ 2014 show —Now, escapes categorical imperatives, the artist working as a composer, programmer and data analyst. “You bring an artist like that into the museum and it short circuits,” McLendon says. “Is it the performance person who deals with them? The film department? Works on paper? Because they’re working in all these media, you don’t know who gets to deal with them. So they get ignored. It’s just too difficult to figure out where they fit.”

And piece-by-piece, McLendon disassembles that archaic syntax of institutional hierarchy, opening up The Ringling and ultimately museum culture. His forthcoming shows speak to that with a survey of the interdisciplinary artist Toni Dove, due to open in 2018. “I’m very mindful of how special that is, because you don’t get that many times in your life. I am and will always be thankful to Sarasota for that,” he says fervidly. Again he recalls Austin’s unprecedented legacy at The Ringling, saying, “It’s impossible to overstate what a pioneer he was.” In most cases, institutional critique emanates outside the museum walls—understandably and necessarily so—but it takes immense probity and care to usher in that sense of equity from within, a kind of sincere realism McLendon embodies, aiming to address wider issues of social justice, equality and how the museum remains relevant to those conversations. McLendon wants to ensure that a spectrum of identities and experiences are embraced at The Ringling, ultimately providing visibility within the collection for everyone. Albritton says in a pressing tone: “Those are the kinds of things we really need here in Sarasota.”

McLendon works with the Hermitage Artist Retreat and the Greenfield Foundation, which annually awards an artist time and space to work, a sizeable stipend and a solo show at The Ringling. So far, McLendon has mounted shows of Sanford Biggers and Trenton Doyle Hancock. He’s currently working with Coco Fusco toward a new project to premiere at The Ringling in 2018. Through The Ringling’s countless partnerships working with local and regional organizations, the institution has been able to develop a rich, multivalent set of shows, concurrently building its contemporary collection with an emphasis on emerging and mid-career artists often left unsupported institutionally.

Through its growing permanent collection, The Ringling stands to exponentially build its exhibition record—one way museums build up a rapport with other institutions. That initiative will eventually make The Ringling synonymous with the contemporary. With the long-awaited opening of the Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA), locals have their fingers crossed McLendon and SMOA Executive Director Anne-Marie Russell will work to foster a dialogue between the two institutions.

“We’re looking at where we can make an impact,” McLendon says. And that’s ultimately a direction to which many institutions give way in lieu of honoring the canonical approach to a museum program, hindered by acquisition committees and museum board agendas. Major art centers tend to embrace the status quo of museum practice in a slow, but arguably reluctant, push toward diversity. Top-tier institutions’ rosters sometimes include art stars and celebrities; while diverse in their own right, these kinds of celebrity fetishes promulgated by curators can fail to provide visibility to those who need it most. That said, those same institutions have resources to mount the most imaginative shows, and sometimes they do. But the subduction zones of the museum are beginning to move, the shift almost audible, change sometimes helter-skelter. Sometimes during season, McLendon will spend seven nights out a week taking part in what the museums calls “donor cultivation.” He’s a self-described introvert who prizes his downtime, but says, “When I’m out in a social setting, it’s still a process of education.”

Albritton says McLendon provides a breath of fresh air, looking for “new ways to approach the contemporary.” She suggests his approach is not just new or fresh but instrumental and necessary. With the incessant growth of the art world, many still proselytize that New York City remains a center within contemporary art. “New York continues to act as a clearinghouse for the arts,” McLendon notes, but: “New York is [also] the most parochial place on planet Earth," he says, "and I say that loud and proud as a quasi-New Yorker myself.” That holds true for all of the art world’s fault lines: press, galleries, public and private institutions, as well as the academic limb. Of the skewed, limited space available for artists at the intuitional level, McLendon says many slip through the cracks, left maligned in the margins. “Those are emerging, mid-career artists least supported by museums or granting bodies. And beyond that, if you’re a mid-career female artist, good luck.”

Jill Sigman, an artist McLendon included in his Re: Purposed show last year, says, “I’m sort of a testimony to his interest to working at these boundaries.” She is primarily a choreographer with her own dance company; for Hut #10, a hut completely made of upcycled trash and refuse collected in Sarasota, she worked with the museum staff closely, inviting them to take part in her project, still receiving letters from staff at The Ringling. She makes clear McLendon’s exacting foresight, patience and resounding faith in his artists. “He understood the value of all that relationship building, and that’s why I think we could reach the public in that way,” she says.

 She notes McLendon’s eagerness to work with artists who “don’t fit neatly into a box.” Sigman adamantly says McLendon does not take his position lightly, that he is part of a broader movement in curatorial practice, updating the categories of the museum, making it more verdant than he found it. McLendon has a “prerogative and mandate to curate,” she says. More importantly: “He has the opportunity to change minds.”

In light of this country’s past, our global entanglements and a contemporary world where the local and international seem inextricably linked like never before, McLendon possesses an implacable vigor, an exponentially fierce need to communicate why and how the museum remains relevant today—and increasingly so. His terminal goal is to make sure that when audiences enter the 21 galleries at The Ringling, they have an opportunity to see themselves represented, to have the opportunity to identify more meaningfully with art, culture and our current world. McLendon condemns the lack of depth and breadth within contemporary criticism, curation and art practice, but he isn’t solipsistic or cynical. Rather, he seems intensely optimistic, ceaselessly inspired. He acknowledges he still believes in the unparalleled relationship one finds with an object, but “it’s got to leave the museum walls with you.” These shows take the temperature of our current socio-political climate, and those paths he intends to tread will ultimately edge The Ringling closer towards the center, maybe reconstituting what the center of the contemporary can mean entirely.

He makes clear his hopes for The Ringling to be a nexus of serious discourse, inciting conversations that extend well beyond Sarasota, art or culture. He advocates for museums as a safe gathering space, a site to be incessantly contested and never static. He has continually addressed this in his own program, within the curatorial department, with his audience and even with The Ringling’s board. He mentions the idea of diversity among the board needs to surpass just ethnicity. “They’re aware of that and self-critical,” he says. As to The Ringling’s audience, he advocates for more after-hours programs that clearly show how much more diverse the audience becomes when the museum stays open later. These goals are critical for McLendon but more pressing for The Ringling’s longevity.

Sitting in James Turrell’s trademark “skyspace” Joseph’s Coat, a permanent installation McLendon helped realize in 2011, I ask McLendon how he gains the trust of artists. He takes a moment, glances up towards the electric blue opening in the ceiling, pauses and says, “I’m at a particular advantage because I spent part of my life as an artist myself—not a visual artist, but a performing artist. The worries are the same: I was putting myself out on stage. They’re putting themselves on a plinth. So I think it enables me to speak the language and to know what it takes to empower and enable them.”

It doesn’t hurt that he’s funny, the first point Albritton makes, or that he is almost impossibly intelligent. Arts writer Pamela Beck, a friend of McLendon, claims he is always the smartest person in the room. But his intelligence evades verbose polysyllabic syntax. It’s an adept emotional intelligence he makes clear, but says: “I’m very, very mindful that it’s [the artist's] vision. Not mine. And I think that’s key.” At any point in time, McLendon exists unremittingly in two places and in the midst of multiple conversations that span years. “I have a to-do list every morning, and by 9am that to-do list is in the trash,” he says, then laughs. “It’s about being adaptable, because it’s a very delicate dance getting to know an artist. Ultimately, it’s about what you’re presenting in the gallery. So I’m really interested in how that comes about. I’m interested in the process and their practice, and I think artists pick up on that—I hope they pick up on that.”

This past June, McLendon was opening a traveling show at The Ringling, Phantom Bodies, the work within addressing the fallout caused by the Holocaust to the visual traces of our own country’s long civil rights battle, still extant. During that week, he corresponded with one of the show’s artists, who mentioned, “We ask so much of art.” McLendon now muses, “Of the many things we ask of art, one of the things we ask of it is to help us process our current lives. We ask art to be an escape, to be beauty, to be ugly, to be a mirror, to teach us, to frame our experience and I think we have to embrace that and rush to it. And the more we can ask of art, the more relevant the museum will be.”