Rediscover the Ringling

By staff June 1, 2007

A headline in a recent issue of the London-based culture magazine Apollo called the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art “The Greatest Art Museum on Earth.” Circus impresario John Ringling would have loved the hyperbole, not to mention the allusion to his Greatest Show on Earth.

But while the Ringling may not be ready to join the ranks of the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum, the institution has undergone a dramatic, $76 million transformation in the past several years.

“We have doubled in size, making us among the 20 largest art museums in North America,” says executive director John Wetenhall. “We’ve gone from being a local museum to a truly national and international museum. And it’s happened twice as fast as I thought it could.”

Since 2006, four new buildings have opened on the 66-acre Ringling grounds. The Tibbals Learning Center, an expansion of the circus collection, is the home of a captivating model-circus display, as well as a showplace for circus posters, photographs and props. The new Visitors Pavilion houses a chic restaurant, Treviso, and the restored Historic Asolo Theater, an 18th-century playhouse once located in an Italian castle. The 68,000-square-foot Education/Conservation building contains an expanded conservation lab and art library.

Perhaps most importantly, the art museum’s just-opened Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing provides an additional 20,000 square feet of flexible exhibition space. There, touring shows and exhibits from the permanent collection can be displayed in an elegant, sophisticated environment.

The museum’s long history of neglect makes the changes at Ringling even more impressive. John Ringling bequeathed the museum and his mansion, Cà d’Zan, to the state of Florida at his death in 1936. But the complex was never adequately funded by state legislators, many of whom weren’t even aware they owned it.

The Ringling’s fortunes changed in 2000, when governance was transferred to Florida State University, and the legislature allocated $43 million for capital improvements. At the same time, the museum embarked on a major endowment campaign, which exceeded its goal of raising $50 million.

And the renaissance at Ringling is capturing the attention of the nation’s art community. In its latest issue, Museum News—a publication of the American Association of Museums—hailed the “remarkable rebirth and reinvention” that has made the Ringling “a world-class institution.”

Yet many Sarasota residents haven’t visited the museum in years. They still regard it as a musty place to drop off vacationing relatives on a rainy day. To whet your appetite to wander again among the Baroque paintings, the circus wagons and the banyan trees, what follows is a by-no-means-exhaustive list of new reasons to rediscover the Ringling.

See a Blockbuster Summer Show

Impressionism! The word causes even the most casual art enthusiast to salivate. So even though the Ringling has never presented a show with potential blockbuster appeal in the traditionally slower summer, large crowds are expected in the Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing starting June 16. That’s when a touring exhibit, Impressionists from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, begins a three-month stay in the new galleries. More than 40 landscape paintings by French and American artists, including Claude Monet, Gustav Corbet and Frederick Childe Hassam, are part of the exhibit.

Already up in the Searing wing is In Our Time, an exhibit of 150 iconic black-and-white photographs from the Magnum collection. Works by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and other renowned 20th-century photographers are represented in the show. Subjects range from war and political upheaval to portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

Designed by Yann Weymouth of HOK Architects, the Searing wing was inspired by never-completed plans by John Phillips, the architect John Ringling hired to design his museum in the 1920s. The addition’s exterior seamlessly extends the museum’s existing north loggia, with its classical arches and columns. But the new wing’s interior is strikingly contemporary, with movable walls, flexible lighting systems to accommodate a variety of shows, and elegant bamboo and white-oak flooring. And don’t miss the two “quiet rooms” at the southwest and northwest corners of the wing. These glass-enclosed cubes are the perfect spots to relax on a couch and reflect on what you’ve seen, or just stare through the trees at Sarasota Bay in the distance.

Get New Perspectives on Classic Paintings

When most visitors to the museum think of Peter Paul Rubens, they think of the massive Triumph of the Eucharist Biblical paintings in the high-ceilinged gallery where they begin their tour. But Stephen D. Borys, the museum’s curator of collections, wants visitors to see other sides of Rubens. That’s why the artist’s 1635 painting, Portrait of the Infante Ferdinand, is now displayed more prominently than it used to be in Gallery 13.

“If you have an hour or so in the galleries, and you miss a key work like this, that would be unfortunate,” Borys says, gesturing toward the painting. “This is Rubens at his best. He is a great colorist, a portrait painter whose work has psychological depth. This one really captures the pomp and circumstance of the Hapsburg dynasty.”

The Rubens portrait is just one of hundreds of paintings that visitors will experience in a new way, thanks to a major reinstallation of the 21 original galleries that Borys has just completed. “This hadn’t been done in a decade, so it was time,” says Borys, who joined Ringling last year after working at the National Gallery of Canada and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio.

“My goal was to take a fresh, serious, informative look at the collection, while respecting the legacy of John Ringling. I wanted visitors to have the most enjoyable time possible, while also giving them the opportunity to learn as much as possible, in an aesthetically pleasing way.”

To that end, Borys wrote new labels and wall texts, rearranged the way many paintings were displayed and brought out others from storage. He also toned down the color schemes in some galleries, where he felt the bold wall colors were too much of a distraction.

A portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun now commands visitors’ attention in a gallery of French paintings. “This is one of the largest pastels in North America, and it’s just gorgeous,” Borys says. “But before, it was down the hall, on a side wall, and kind of lost.”

Gallery 10 is now devoted to the works of Dutch, Flemish, Austrian and Swiss artists who worked in Italy. “Previously, these paintings were spread out by country in about five different galleries,” Borys says. “I thought it was important to display them together and to show them near the paintings by Italian artists who influenced them. That way, you can better appreciate the continuity.”

Before the reinstallation, many Ringling galleries were overflowing with paintings. Some even hung above the doorways, high above the visitors’ heads. Borys has taken a more streamlined approach. “It can be wonderful to enter a gallery and be overwhelmed by the number of pictures,” he says. “But if visitors just walk through in awe and never penetrate a work of art, then that’s of no value.”

Let Your iPod Lead the Tour

For the first time in its history, the Ringling is offering audio tours of its permanent collection. Visitors can pay $5 to rent an iPod loaded with information about 60 paintings and art objects in the 21 original galleries and the courtyard.

“It’s a structured tour that can be followed from start to finish,” curator Borys says. “But because it’s on an iPod, visitors have random access. They can pick the stops that interest them most. They can create their own tours.”

Borys, executive director Wetenhall and two other members of the curatorial staff share their insights on the audio tour. “I believe people want to hear an authority speaking, rather than hear someone else reading a text by an authority,” Borys says. “We didn’t have a script, only talking points, so there is a conversational feel to it.”

The tour also features a narrator, as well as character voices reading Biblical passages, diary excerpts and quotes by the artists. “An audio tour is a great way to animate a permanent collection that doesn’t change that much,” Borys says. “This one gives the visitor a good understanding of the collection from an art-historical point of view, and yet it’s also quite accessible.”

Marvel at an Astounding Circus

The Tibbals Learning Center is a stuffy name for a building that’s so much fun to visit. Open since January 2006, the two-story, contemporary-style space doubles the size of the Ringling’s Circus Museum. Dominating the ground floor is Howard Tibbals’ astounding 3,800-square-foot model circus, a tribute to the Ringling tent show of the ‘20s and ‘30s. The exhibit consists of 44,000 separate pieces, including 800 animals, 1,300 performers and 7,500 tiny folding chairs. You can peer into the dining tent, the dressing tents, the blacksmith shop, the menagerie and the sideshow area. Realistic sound effects, dramatic lighting and video clips help bring the exhibit to life.

The collection is a lifelong passion of Tibbals, a retired flooring-company owner who winters in Sarasota. He called it the Howard Bros. Circus because Ringling circus officials wouldn’t let him use their name when he asked them years ago.

But he’s slipped Ringling into the exhibit, anyway. John Ringling, that is. Near the ring stock tent, where show horses are kept, stands a prosperous-looking figure in a dark suit and hat. “I tell people that’s Ringling, who has arrived to check out the competition,” Tibbals says with a chuckle.

Tibbals is such a stickler for accuracy that the tiny water pails carried by performers in the dressing tent bear the actual names of Ringling performers of the era. “I got the names from a 1936 route book that lists all the performers and every stop the circus made,” Tibbals says.

Don’t make the mistake of some visitors and skip the Tibbals building’s second floor, which traces the history of the circus from its roots in ancient Rome to Cirque du Soleil. You might even run into Tibbals himself, in a woodworking area that was built for him. He confesses he doesn’t spend too much time there, though. “People are very nice, but they ask so many questions, I can’t get any work done,” he says.

Peek into Private Places

The $15-million renovation of Cà d’Zan was completed in 2002, so exploring the opulent mansion can’t really count as a new reason to visit the Ringling grounds. But what is relatively new is the Private Places Tour, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at portions of the home most people never see.

Limited to seven visitors, the $20 tour begins in the home’s servant quarters. You also get to explore several guest bedrooms and stop in John Ringling’s exercise room. “Exercise” is a relative term, for his workout equipment evidently consisted of a massage table and a machine with pulleys that “basically jiggled his body,” says Ron McCarty, the curator of Cà d’Zan.

The tour’s highlight, though, is the somewhat eerie and mysterious game room, where John and his cronies retired after dinner to play poker and pool. The low ceiling and the walls are decorated in a Venetian carnival motif. Willy Pogany, the Hungarian artist who also did the ceiling of the ballroom, here painted John as a street musician. Wife Mabel is depicted as a kind of Snow White figure in a flowing gown, with a parrot on her arm.

At the entrance to the game room, behind a fake door, is a massive Diebolt vault. The Ringlings stored artwork and jewelry there when they left Sarasota for the summer. And when the vault was opened after John Ringling died, plenty of booze was discovered there, too. We’re talking 90 bottles of bourbon, 60 bottles of champagne and 50 bottles of gin, just for starters. The greatest liquor stash on earth?

The Private Places tour ends in a spectacular manner, with a climb up an exterior spiral staircase to the top of the mansion’s 60-foot-high Italian Renaissance tower. The view of the bay and the barrier islands in the distance may be the most stunning in Sarasota. And just think, at one time John Ringling owned virtually everything he could see from that perch.

Admire a Jewel of a Theater

The Historic Asolo Theater reopened in grand style in October in its new home, the Visitors Pavilion, with a gala performance by opera star Susan Graham. The intimate, horseshoe-shaped Italian Baroque theater played host to 175 more concerts, stage performances, lectures and film screenings during the season.

Constructed in a castle in Asolo, Italy, in 1798, the theater was purchased in 1947 by Everett “Chick” Austin, the Ringling’s first director. It was subsequently reassembled in a 1950s building behind the art museum, where it played a major role in the development of Sarasota’s cultural life. The Asolo Rep, the Sarasota Opera and the La Musica chamber festival all got their starts there.

The Historic Asolo was always known as a “jewel-box” theater, and after a two-year restoration, it sparkles and glistens more than ever. Of course, some purists complain about the contemporary lighting grid on the ceiling, and others bemoan that the theater is not partitioned into individual boxes, as it once was.

Watch John and Mable on the Big Screen

If you don’t attend a performance at the Historic Asolo, the only way you can see it is by buying a ticket to a new documentary about the Ringlings ($5 for adults, $2 for children) that’s screened there several times a day.

Narrated by Hal Holbrook, The Life and Times of John and Mable Ringling is an evocative, handsomely made blend of vintage photos, archival footage and re-enacted scenes featuring actors in period costume.

“We didn’t want any talking heads; we didn’t want the story told in a flat way, but rather with passion and emotion,” says Wetenhall. The film presents the Ringling story against the larger backdrop of a changing America. It explores the growth of the circus in the late 19th century and touches on the Roaring ‘20s, the Florida land boom and the Great Depression. And it ends poignantly, with an actor portraying John Ringling standing alone in the Cà d ‘Zan tower as his financial empire collapses.

Produced by Tampa public television station WEDU, the documentary is preceded by a five-minute film about the restoration of the Historic Asolo.

Dine with Italian Style

You don’t need to purchase a museum admission ticket to eat at Treviso, the sleek and extremely popular new restaurant in the Visitors Pavilion. Named for the region in Italy that includes the city of Asolo, Treviso serves a variety of salads, pasta dishes and paninis at lunch, as well as Venetian-style shrimp and polenta, lobster farfalle and the John R. Burger, a half-pound Black Angus burger with homemade steak sauce. At night, when Treviso is usually packed if there’s a show at the Historic Asolo or at the FSU Center across the street, a tapas menu is served.

Diners can eat outdoors on a patio overlooking two ponds and the Tibbals Learning Center. It’s noisier but still pleasant inside, where one wall of the restaurant is covered with an enlarged (and oddly fuzzy) black-and-white engraving of the city of Asolo.

Make—or Learn About—Art

The Ringling’s Handz On program of art-making activities for families, which was launched earlier this year, continues on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer.

The free program is designed for children ages five to 10 and their parents. In June, participants will study the In Our Time photo exhibit and create their own photographic prints. In July, they’ll paint Baroque-style still-life artworks, and in August they’ll explore Impressionism.

Education activities for adults are expanding, too. This year, the museum started a pilot program for a cultural institute it’s creating in conjunction with FSU. In February, Sarah Cash, the curator of American Art at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., taught a two-day course on American painting. It complemented the exhibition of American art on loan from the Corcoran earlier this year.

“We’re hoping to offer 25 to 30 courses next year,” says Wetenhall. “We want to have courses on dance, music, theater, anything cultural. We want to offer people the kind of courses they wish they had taken when they were in college, but didn’t.”

This summer, Wetenhall will teach a class in the business of museums to graduate students who are using the Ringling as a teaching lab. “As much as we have accomplished here in the past few years, we’re only at the halfway point when it comes to fulfilling our educational mission,” Wetenhall says. “I’m really excited about the possibilities ahead of us.”

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