Exhibit at The Ringling remembers first female African American board member 

Dr. Lisa Merritt, daughter of Eleanor Merritt and museum director, Steven High
Dr. Lisa Merritt, daughter of Eleanor Merritt and museum director, Steven High

Florida State University’s John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art recently unveiled “Eleanor Merritt: Remembrance,” an exhibit honoring the life and art of Eleanor Merritt, a cultural leader, activist and the first female African American board member of The Ringling.

The exhibit will run through August and features a selection of 22 works that explore the interrelatedness of society, spirituality and gender derived from her African and Caribbean roots and Abstract Expressionist education.

“It was a pleasure to curate this exhibition in partnership with the Merritt estate,” said Steven High, director of The Ringling. “Eleanor was a very special volunteer at The Ringling for over 25 years who passed away in 2019. To be able to showcase her substantial body of artwork in the exhibition ‘Remembrance’ was an honor and a testament to her life as an artist and educator.”

The exhibit kicked off Feb. 18 with a reception announcing the Eleanor Merritt Fellowship, a training program fostering under-represented recent college graduates.

Merritt was named “Artist of the Year” in 1994 by the Sarasota Visual Arts Center and received the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. In 2013, she received national recognition with an exhibition at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. Her final exhibition in 2017 at the Arts and Cultural Alliance celebrated her 60 years of painting.

The Ringling Board Member Javi Suarez at the exhibit.
The Ringling Board Member Javi Suarez at the exhibit.

A well-recognized leader and mentor within the Sarasota arts community, Merritt served on the board when the Florida Legislature placed the stewardship of the museum under Florida State University — a critical moment in The Ringling’s history.

“Merritt’s stature in the art world and her charismatic leadership on the Foundation Board of Directors was instrumental in lifting the museum from a state of neglect and in recognizing the importance of joining FSU,” said Carolyn Johnson, former board member of The Ringling. “Through her love of art and championing of The Ringling’s treasures, Merritt influenced the powers of FSU to invest in the museum’s rebirth.”

“Eleanor Merritt: Remembrance” includes never-before-seen mixed media works created by Merritt. In addition to paying tribute to her talent, the exhibition also honors Merritt’s unwavering commitment to expanding access to the arts.

“This exhibition solidifies Eleanor Merritt as an important artist whose impressive work spans both the 20th and 21st centuries and confirms that she is deserving of critical reflection within art history,” said Lauren Cross, assistant professor at the University of North Texas, invited essayist and expert in women in the arts. “Her leadership in the arts on a national scale and as a board member to The Ringling also celebrate the influence of an artist whose impact reached near, far and wide.”

An early advocate for women’s rights, Merritt paved the way for artists of color and advocated within national and regional art organizations, including through her role as the program manager for the Women’s Caucus for Arts’ Women of Color Slide Project.

“She used art to enact change and greatly impacted The Ringling’s legacy as an equitable and open space for artists to express themselves and their passions,” said daughter, Lisa Merritt, M.D., who is following her mother’s footsteps as a current board member of The Ringling.

Throughout her career, Eleanor Merritt’s mixed media practice alternated between oils, acrylics, inks and black paper as a platform to describe narratives of strength, agency and empowerment in the context of her identity as a woman of color.

“Eleanor Merritt’s commitment to abstract expressions of the figure placed her in the midst of the figurative versus abstraction divide within both museums and the field of art history, which has been slow to recognize the legacy of Black abstract painters as relevant practitioners in the art historical canon,” Cross said.

For more information, visit https://www.ringling.org/events/eleanor-merritt-remembrance.