With a surprising minimum of fuss, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art has leapt into the 21st century.
The museum complex, long a familiar presence on the bayfront north of downtown, seemed to have slumbered quietly there after it was bequeathed to the State of Florida by the Ringling estate in 1936.
During the succeeding years, however, other forces were at work, most of them destructive. By the late 1990s, the facilities had reached a low point: The Ringling Mansion, Ca d’Zan, had to be closed for several years during a six-year renovation; the building in which the Historic Asolo Theater had been installed was condemned; and a leaky roof was endangering the art museum’s collections and the main galleries.
Drastic steps were clearly required, the first of which was transferring governance from the Florida Department of State to Florida State University. Then funds had to be raised to repair the original buildings, the first priority in what had become a cultural emergency. Finally, money was made available to build four new buildings on the Museum Master Plan, including additional galleries, an expansion of the Circus Museum, a visitor’s center and an education complex. With little disruption to the operation of the complex, all of this was accomplished in just six years.
The Ringling is now one of the 20 largest art museums in North America. And for a relatively modest total investment of $140 million, Sarasota and the world have gained a facility that artfully blends the original splendor of the era of John and Mable Ringling with the finest resources of the 21st century.
Modern architectural elements have been fused with the theatricality of the original buildings to provide a campus that is at once coherent and exciting. (Rather like the circus, come to think of it.) The performance begins, as it should, with the entrance to the complex. Those who have visited some of the world’s dramatic new museums might expect to find a conspicuous glass structure, futuristic and daunting. Instead, the new entrance is found through the wonderful gates that stand at the beginning of what used to be the driveway leading to Ca d’Zan (or “House of John” in Venetian dialect).
Walking through the colorful Gothic arch, you’re surprised to find a large, modern building, sleek and smooth, that houses the new visitor’s center, including ticket counters, information displays, a slick new restaurant, the indispensable gift shop and the restored Historic Asolo Theater. That the building is virtually invisible from the street is no coincidence, says architect Yann Weymouth of the Tampa-based firm HOK, whose idea it was to create the new entrance through the existing Ca d’Zan gates rather than grafting something new on the existing museum building. According to the museum’s executive director, Dr. John Wetenhall, this decision honors “the original aesthetic by controlling the visibility of the new.”
Inside, the lobby ceiling soars, and the west wall of glass reveals the lakes, landscape and buildings outside. This is a transparent space, alluring and filled with natural light. Devoted to introducing the Ringling story, it’s self-effacing, a term seldom used in connection with modern museum architecture. Here, according to Weymouth, “The architect’s mission is to re-value John Ringling’s vision, not to create new icons within it.” This professional modesty is apparent everywhere in the complex, fulfilling the original concept while keeping new and old clearly identified and sensitively separate.
The new Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing galleries provide an apt illustration of this principle. Weymouth chose to respect the dynamics of the original 1920s design by John Ringling’s architect, John Phillips, extending the north loggia of the building with modern versions of the existing arches, columns and balustrade while making it clear where the original ends and the contemporary begins. In addition to the subtle change of materials in the contemporary columns, which are now cast concrete, the line of sculptures along the roof line has been left just where it ended originally, effectively marking the beginning of the addition.
The interiors of the new gallery wing are, simply put, superb. Their generous proportions and flexibility bode well for spectacular shows in the future, taking advantage of the latest technology in lighting and climate control and with movable walls and handsome flooring. One of the most intriguing features is James Turrell’s famous “Skypieces,” which will turn the new courtyard into a tropical garden with a dazzling opening to the sky, a venue for social events and a place for creative daydreaming.
Speaking of daydreaming, note the wonderful glass cubes that jut out from the building’s west wall, providing places to escape from possible art-overload while looking across the grounds toward the bay.
More excitement is being completed on the south side of the museum’s main courtyard, where the existing West Galleries are being transformed into the Dr. Helga Wall-Apelt Gallery of Asian Art, designed to house both her own collection and the Kroger collection of Chinese ceramics given to the museum in 2002.
This really is a four-ring circus, for just to the south, on the boundary between the museum campus and that of New College, the striking new Education/Conservation building is a strong expression of modern architecture that nonetheless respects the proportions of the older structures. The north facade, mostly glass, provides striking views of the campus, particularly the old trees and new water features. Behind these enormous windows lies a two-story reading room with an arched ceiling that recalls other great reading rooms, such as the one in the New York Public Library. In this building, archives, conservation laboratories, classroom and staff offices finally bring together the essential “back of the house” functions that were formerly scattered all over the north side of town.
Most are familiar by now with the new Tibbals Learning Center by architect John Toppe, just to the north of the visitor’s center, with its jaunty circus tent entrance and a flag-bedecked facade that expresses the reason all this exists in our town: the Ringling Bros. Circus. The building houses Howard Tibbals’ remarkable scale model of a Ringling-like circus, as well as education facilities. Less familar, perhaps, is the restored Historic Asolo Theater interior, now housed in the visitor’s center. The carved and painted panels of the court theater from the Ducal Palace in Asolo, Italy, are dazzling, a shower of glowing color and graceful shapes. But the floor surfaces are high-tech, the lighting is state-of-the-art and the ceiling makes no attempt to re-create the original. Unfortunately, a nasty grid of tiny "fairy lights" marches along overhead, calling unnecessary attention to itself.
All in all, the expansion of the museum is a remarkable achievement. Sarasotans can boast that our city how has an absolutely world-class facility. That the architecture of the new fits with the old without degrading John Ringling’s remarkable vision only adds to the triumph.