Of the many differences between Palm Beach and La Serenissima, one that stands out to Dr. Philip Rylands is the sterling upkeep of the Florida town. “I was struck by how clean and tidy and manicured the landscaping and the streets were compared to Venice,” he tells Avenue.
“Venice is picturesque, but in other ways it’s also very dilapidated: shabby posters on the walls, chewing gum on the pavement, graffiti everywhere, broken-down walls. And that’s not so in Palm Beach at all. Everything is pristine.”
The cities’ comparative aesthetics aside, moving from Italy to Florida to become the chief executive and president of the Society of the Four Arts was a natural progression in Rylands’s career.
As a University of Cambridge PhD candidate in the 1970s, the British-born Rylands found himself in Venice working on a catalogue raisonné of the Renaissance painter Palma Vecchio. But an opportunity to be the administrator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection after its eponymous founder’s death in 1979 nudged him into the world of modernism. It helped that he, his wife (author Jane Turner Rylands), and Guggenheim were all good friends.
“I knew Peggy, saw a lot of Peggy as well,” he recalls, noting that she was particularly fun on the Venice social scene. “But since I was studying a 16th-century Venetian painter, she couldn’t imagine that I would go on to run her museum of 20th-century modernism.”
Nonetheless he had a knack for the job, eventually becoming the Guggenheim Foundation’s director for Italy, before he finally stepped down in 2017. He would have settled into retirement had he not been offered the job at the Four Arts two years later. To Rylands, it sounded “like great fun. Right up my street.” With a similar budget and size to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, he felt he was up to the task.
The Society of the Four Arts was founded in 1936 by Mary (Mrs. Lorenzo E.) Woodhouse; Maud Howe Elliott, an author; and Mrs. Frederick Johnson (aka the painter Mary McKinnon) to promote fine art, literature, drama, and music. Today, the organization also includes two libraries (one of which, the King Library, houses the personal books and papers of the late architect Addison Cairns Mizner) and operates hundreds of events — including exhibits, film screenings, lectures, and concerts — during its six-month season between November and April. Town ordinances on parking and auditorium capacity limit how many visitors the Four Arts can accommodate, meaning demand for membership outstrips supply. “We don’t go out looking for members,” says Rylands. “Applicants come to us, and that’s very flattering.”
Nonmembers, of course, are still welcome to attend the museum’s shows and events, and Rylands stresses that it is open to the entire community. “I’m particularly keen on communicating — not to colleagues, scholars, professionals, but to amateurs in the best sense of people who love art,” he says. “And I’m finding that that’s one of my contributions to the Four Arts.”
Only a few months into his tenure, the museum, like everywhere else, was hit with the Covid-19 pandemic. “It was dramatic and none of us knew what was going on,” he says, explaining that the Four Arts closed for the last month of its 2019–20 season. “It was necessary at that time to terminate the season’s program prematurely, which we were sorry to do. I think we were the first Palm Beach cultural organization to take that step — we kind of led the way.”
Its limited 2020–21 season contained many virtual events, but also the landmark show “Charles and Jackson Pollock,” which displayed the work of the artist brothers together for the first time. “It was successful, a critical success,” says Rylands. “We didn’t get a lot of press, but everyone who saw it — including our very distinguished Palm Beach members — were impressed by it.”
The 2022 program kicked off in November with two major shows: “A Beautiful Mess: Weavers & Knotters of the Vanguard,” a textile exhibit; and “An Eye on Michelangelo and Bernini: Photographs by Aurelio Amendola,” a photography exhibit. And February will see the opening of “In a New Light: American Impressionism 1870–1940,” a “sweeping survey of American Impressionism” which will feature work from George Innes, Thomas Moran, John Sloan, Daniel Garber, and more. “That’ll be a lovely show,” muses Rylands. “[It] will certainly be a crowd-pleaser.”
Writer and curator David Anfam, who was unable to travel to the Four Arts during the pandemic, will finally come to discuss Jackson Pollock n the Campus on the Lake talk series. And the season’s O’Keeffe Speakers (the Four Arts’ flagship lecture program, which runs from January to March) will feature the likes of journalist Carl Hiaasen, General James Mattis, and former NASA astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan.
Rylands sees no need to overhaul the organization he stewards—sure, he thinks the sculpture garden could use an update—but he does harbor ambitions to produce original programming on a grander scale. “It’d be nice to start to curate art exhibitions for the Society—for Palm Beach—instead of simply importing them off exhibition circuits,” he says. “To be an exporter of culture; to actually do something which Palm Beach can be proud of.
“[The Four Arts] deserves to be well known,” he adds. “It deserves to be better known outside of Palm Beach.”