Supporting Tomorrow’s Artists Today
By Gayle Guynup / Portrait by Matthew Holler ’11
Maurice (Mo) and Carolyn Dursi Cunniffe got their first taste of Ringling College of Art and Design in 2014, when close friend and long-time Ringling College supporter Jean Martin invited them to attend An Evening at the Avant-Garde. The couple made a gift toward student scholarships that very evening.
That was just the beginning of the couple’s involvement with Ringling College. With Mo’s long-time love of the arts (he is an avid collector of American Impressionists), and both his and Carolyn’s long-time philanthropic support of higher education, the relationship with Ringling College was a natural fit.
Over the years, the Cunniffes have found a variety of ways to support the College and its students. One of their most recent and generous gifts will be recognized with the naming of the new campus dining facility in their honor, Cunniffe Commons.
Yet another passion is student scholarships. In 2020, they created the Maurice and Carolyn Cunniffe Masterpiece Scholarship, a full-tuition scholarship that supports students with the innate talent and drive for art and design but without the financial resources to make their dreams a reality.
“Higher education today has become an expensive investment,” Carolyn said. “If we want to see talented young people get a good education and, in the case of Ringling College, have an excellent career path, financial help is indispensable.”
Mo has also been a member of the College’s Board of Trustees since 2015 and serves on the Board’s Academic and Student Affairs Committee. The Cunniffes have also participated in the College’s Art Tour travel programs.
Mo started his career as a junior physicist at ITT Laboratories. Years later, in 1971, he formed his own company, Vista Capital Corporation, which, over the next 40 years, purchased multiple companies. Today, he is chairman and chief executive officer of Vista.
Carolyn Dursi Cunniffe was senior vice president executive recruiting at Cablevision Systems Corporation, retiring in 2011. She also spent a number of years in various management positions, directing retail services and product launches at both Revlon and Chanel.
Both earned their undergraduate degrees from Fordham University, Mo with an A.B. in physics and Carolyn receiving her B.S. from Fordham’s Undergraduate School of Education. Carolyn earned her master’s degree in modern languages and her doctorate in French literature from Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and then completed her studies at The Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Perugia. Mo earned his master’s in physics from Stevens Institute of Technology, and completed doctorate-level studies in economics and finance at NYU.
Today, Carolyn is a trustee of Fordham, while Mo, who was a trustee there for 12 years, serves as a trustee emeritus at the university. They remain major donors to their alma mater.
Mo and Carolyn met in 2009, and soon fell in love. “It all happened in an instant,” Carolyn said. “We married, and then about seven years ago, a trip from the East Coast of Florida to the West Coast to see a dear friend brought the Cunniffes to Sarasota for the first time. “Our friend showed us around and in record time we fell for the beauty of Sarasota and all of the cultural opportunities it afforded,” Carolyn said.
Shortly after attending Avant-Garde, Mo met Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design, whom Carolyn describes as “an impressive leader and a person who gets things done,” she said. “He has been incredibly effective in establishing Ringling College as a top-tier art school.”
Mo says he was happy to become a trustee of such a well-run school with an impressive percentage of students graduating with excellent jobs.
“Ringling College is one of the rare examples of a school’s influence permeating the entire city,” Mo said. “The creativity and skill of the students is seen everywhere – in the many internship programs offered by local companies, in interior designs for the lobbies of several buildings, in the fabulous short animated films shown at the Town Hall lectures to audiences of 1,700-plus, and in so many other places where the students’ incredible creativity is ‘on show.’ The influence of the school is everywhere and rare is the person in Sarasota who is not familiar with and proud of Ringling College.”