While I’ve seen some folks approach museums with a carpe diem vigor, determined to learn and take in everything in front of them, this sounds exhausting to me, particularly when it comes to a massive institution like the 66-acre Ringling museum complex.
I didn’t grow up going to museums and only started visiting them after high school. Early on, someone told me to treat a museum like a park: Don’t try to read too much or learn too intensely. Simply wander and go where your eye happens to land. It’s a worthy approach for an expansive space like The Ringling, which is a whole experience, not just the sum of single pieces of art.
You can spend a day, even two, exploring the galleries and gardens as an initial tour. When I first moved here, I got a membership so I could walk around at lunchtime on weekdays, when it was mostly empty, to clear my head. With four main components—the art museum, the circus museum, the Ca’ d’Zan mansion and the Bayfront Gardens—there is so much to explore. Not to mention the Glass Pavilion just inside the gate.
If you’re going to pick a single day to visit Ringling Museum, here are some things to consider: Mondays are free days for the art museum and gardens, so if you have a large group, it’s an affordable way to visit. This also means it’s the busiest day of the week. The campus is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours on Thursdays. The museum stays open late that day so visitors can visit James Turrell’s Skyspace exhibit, Joseph’s Coat, as the sun sets. It is absolutely something to experience.
So make a full day of it. Head to Mable's Coffee and Tea café (named for John Ringling's wife) when the museum opens for coffee and snacks, then explore the grounds. Either bring a picnic lunch and camp out at one of the tables or eat lunch in the museum’s restaurant, The Ringling Grillroom. You can also try it for dinner before heading over to the Skyspace. It's open and serving food from 11 a.m. to as late as 8 p.m.
On our recent visit, we sat down for lunch, which is something I always do at museums to reset and renourish before exploring more. We enjoyed the ahi tuna poke and the burrata and heirloom tomato appetizers. Both were delicious and reflect what chef Lydell Page has brought to the kitchen. Trained at Houston’s Cordon Bleu, he makes his sauces and gravies from scratch daily. The combination of flavors were surprising; in fact, the dishes were so good, I forgot I was in a museum.
I recommend visiting this museum complex often if you live here. Every time I go, I see something new. (This time, I discovered "Banyan Boy," which is the small statue of a boy that has been consumed by one of the massive banyan trees on the property. Only his face and part of his body peak through the root columns.) If you plan on a single visit, however, here are some things you don’t want to miss:
What to See in the Art Museum
Location: Art Museum Courtyard
David is not only seen throughout Sarasota silhouetted on city signage. It’s also the most recognizable statue in the world. The one at The Ringling is a more recent bronze cast of the original white marble sculpture by Michelangelo. You think you’ve seen it and you think you know it, but beholding this statue in person is striking. It’s large. And yes, this is David, of David and Goliath. An unexpected size and stature to represent young David.
After Florence rid itself of two successive tyrants, David’s story—the story of the underdog, of good prevailing over evil—became a symbol of the freed republic. Originally commissioned to sit high up on the Cathedral of Florence, Michelangelo’s marble sculpture was too beautiful to be so far from viewers, and it was eventually moved to stand in front of the central government building in Florence, and later moved to the Gallery of the Academy of Florence. While the white marble sculpture served as a political symbol for the republic and a key work of art history for Florentines, in Sarasota, the bronze cast has come to represent our status as a city of arts.
(The annual Ringling Underground concert series sees local bands playing beneath the David to a raucous crowd in the garden.)
Mater Dolorosa, or Blue Madonna
Location: Art Museum, Gallery Nine
I had no idea what this was, but as soon as we entered gallery nine, I immediately walked over to see it more closely. As it turns out, this painting is one of the most visited in the permanent collection. You can even buy a small print of it in the gift shop.
Mater Dolorosa, or Blue Madonna, was painted in the 1670s by Onorio Marinari. It’s painted in a “Renaissance style,” in which the figure appears to be luminated from within. The blue of her shroud is as vibrant as “Carl Abbott blue,” the signature color of the celebrated local architect and artist.
What to See in the Circus Museum
Howard Bros. Circus Model
Location: Tibbals Learning Center
This is fun for everyone. Even your most snobbish visitors to Sarasota will not be able help but enjoy seeing this massive miniature replica of a traveling circus. I see something new every time I walk through the display, and the lights even change, so you can see how nighttime looks within the tiny circus. I never knew the circus was this much of a spectacle.
The Tibbals Learning Center is named for the creator of the model, Howard Tibbals.
Location: Historic Galleries, Room 105, Wagon Room
Trains were the transport of choice for the circus when rail lines took prominence over wagon-led troupes. The Wisconsin was the private railroad car for John Ringling and his wife Mable. John and Mable rode the Wisconsin to Sarasota to visit their new bayfront property where their house, the Ca' d’Zan, now stands. This rail car takes visitors back in time and is as delightful as it is uncanny to see the luxury the Ringlings' enjoyed. The only other train car like it holds Bob’s Train restaurant. (Head there for lunch one day and ask Bob for more circus history.)
The Ringling is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday. The museum offers special rates for veterans, students and teachers. For more, visit ringling.org