July 10, 2005
John Ringling liked to dream big. But even he might be
astonished by what's happening at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
The state-owned museum is being transformed by an expansion program that is unprecedented
in the history of any Sarasota cultural institution.
In fact, few museums anywhere will have changed this much in the span of a few years.
Four construction projects are under way on the museum's 66-acre grounds: New art
galleries, an education/conservation building, a new circus museum and a visitors'
pavilion that will contain the restored interior of the original Asolo Theatre.
When all the projects are completed in 2007, "We will have doubled our current square
footage," said John Wetenhall, the museum's executive director. "The Ringling
will be seen not as a place that you visit for a few hours, but a complex of many museums
set on an elegant and extraordinary estate that requires at least a full day to
More than 300,000 visitors already tour the Ringling annually to see its impressive
collection of Old Masters paintings, its small but appealing Circus Museum and the
grandiose Ringling mansion, C d'Zan.
Wetenhall expects attendance to rise by 50,000 to 100,000 when the additional galleries,
the new circus building and the other enhancements are completed.
The dramatic changes are particularly impressive considering that, in the late 1990s, the
museum was struggling financially and facing an uncertain future.
Although John Ringling had left the museum and his mansion to the state of Florida when he
died in 1936, obtaining funding from the Legislature was always a struggle. Many lawmakers
viewed the institution as a Sarasota museum rather than a state asset.
The museum's fortunes changed in 2000 when, largely through the efforts of former Sen.
John McKay, management was transferred to Florida State University. The museum became
eligible for money reserved for building projects at state universities.
A $42.9-million state appropriation in 2002 funded most of the current projects. A
$6.5-million donation from Ringling board member Howard Tibbals covered some of the
construction costs of the almost-completed, 30,000- square-foot circus building, known as
the Tibbals Learning Center.
Tibbals also donated his extraordinary, handmade miniature circus, which will be showcased
in the contemporary-style, two-story building.
Located in the northeast portion of the Ringling complex, the Tibbals building won't open
until early 2006. But Tibbals' tiny circus has already come to town.
In late June, the 68-year-old Tibbals, a down-to-earth millionaire with a lifelong passion
for the circus and for model building, was working on some of the 85 railroad cars and 140
bright-red wagons that are part of his collection in the new building.
When fully installed, the exhibit will occupy 3,600 square feet on the museum's first
floor. Although Tibbals named his circus the Howard Bros. Circus, it's modeled after the
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey tent show from 1920-1938.
The display will reflect all the color and excitement of a circus's arrival in a small
town. Tibbals has never counted the pieces in his collection, but some estimate there are
more than 1 million, including 3,500 human figures, a menagerie of animals, and even tiny
folding chairs under the 36-foot-long, 16-foot-wide big top.
It's been a 50-year project for Tibbals, who began making the pieces when he was in
college. The collection has been displayed previously at the 1982 World's Fair in
Knoxville, Tenn., and at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
"I keep adding to it," said Tibbals, who will have a workshop in the museum.
"I'll keep working on it as long as I'm kicking and screaming."
Tibbals' vintage circus posters and some of the 1 million circus photos in his collection
will also be displayed. A second-floor exhibit will be devoted to the history of the
circus, from ancient Rome to Cirque du Soleil.
"With the Tibbals building, we'll be doubling the size of our circus
collection," Wetenhall said. "We'll be bringing the circus to life in a way
that's going to be jaw-dropping for visitors."
A new entry point
Beginning next year, those visitors will enter the Ringling complex not at the art museum,
as they do now, but through the 45,000-square-foot visitors' pavilion.
It is being built just beyond the Venetian Gothic archway that John Ringling built on Bay
Shore Road in the 1920s to welcome visitors to his mansion.
The pavilion will house a ticket center, a room for an orientation video, a museum shop,
restrooms, a gathering area for school groups, and a restaurant with indoor and outdoor
seating overlooking a pond.
"Two-thirds of our visitors are tourists, and 50 percent are from outside
state," Wetenhall said. "We need to do a better job of introducing them to all
the elements that make up this complex. That's what the pavilion will allow us to do.
"It also allows us to catch up with growth. The current entry foyer was built in the
1920s, when visitors could be counted in the hundreds, not the hundreds of
But longtime Sarasotans are most excited that the pavilion will house the reassembled
historic Asolo Theatre.
Ornate interior pieces from the 18th-century, horseshoe-shaped theater, once located in a
castle in Asolo, Italy, were purchased from an Italian antique dealer in 1949 by
then-museum director Everett Austin.
Subsequently installed in the Manly Building behind the art museum, the playhouse was the
home of the Asolo Theatre Company from the 1960s until 1989, when the theater troupe moved
to its current home, the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.
The interior pieces, which include a proscenium arch, ceiling decorations and richly
ornamented box fronts, were cleaned in the Manly Building before that structure was
demolished. They were then removed for restoration.
Recently in the Ringling's conservation lab, chief conservator Michelle Scalera and her
staff were repairing some structural damage to the pieces.
"We're filling in gaps, working on areas of loss," she said. "But we don't
embellish, we don't aggrandize. We want it to look as it did before."
The reassembled Asolo will have 260 seats -- about the same as it did in its heyday, when
the jewel-box theater was a hub of Sarasota's cultural life. It will again have orchestra
seats and three tiers of boxes.
When the theater is fully operational late next year, the museum plans to present a busy
schedule of plays, concerts and other events.
"This is such an exciting project, because the Asolo is the holy of holies,"
said Dwight Currie, curator of theater programming at the Ringling. "The Asolo
company started here, the Sarasota Opera started here, La Musica (a Sarasota chamber-music
festival) started here.
"I feel an almost sacred obligation to honor this theater's history and to contribute
to its future."
Currie is working to develop partnerships with local arts organizations -- including the
Asolo, of course -- that might like to produce shows or concerts in the theater. The
museum will offer art lectures and programs by visiting scholars from FSU.
The 175-seat restaurant in e pavilion will be open for pre-performance dining. "I
predict it's going to be the hottest place in town," Currie said.
More room for art
The museum's new galleries, scheduled to open in 2007, are being constructed in a
square-shaped addition to the north wing. The design is similar to a plan John Ringling
considered in the 1920s.
The expansion will give the museum an additional 20,000 square feet of exhibition space in
which to present major traveling shows and works from its permanent collection that are
now in storage.
Currently, the Ringling has only 5,000 square feet of space devoted to traveling shows.
"Now, we book exhibits that we think will have the widest appeal," Wetenhall
said. "But with the extra space, we'll have the flexibility to have two shows at the
same time. We can do smaller, more focused shows that are more experimental in
The galleries are being built around a central courtyard, which eventually may be covered
to house a major piece of installation art by contemporary artist James Turrell.
Turrell has an international reputation for creating "sky pieces": Large-scale
works that are explorations of light and space. Additional funds, probably totaling $1
million, would have to be raised for the Turrell project.
The expansion will allow existing space in the museum to be used to display non-Western
art that is in storage. That includes the Koger Collection, a 400-piece collection of
Chinese porcelain and stoneware donated to the museum in 2001.
The heart of the complex
The last and largest piece in the expansion plan, the 68,000-square-foot
education/conservation building, will be Ringling's "behind-the-scenes heart,"
Under construction southwest of the art museum, the building is scheduled to open in
It will house an art conservation lab three times as large as the existing one and capable
of serving other institutions.
The Ringling's 60,000-volume art library, now located in a cramped room, will move to
spacious, light-filled quarters. The complex will also contain office space for the
majority of Ringling employees, many of whom now work in temporary trailers.
Another key aspect will be above-ground storage space for unexhibited portions of the
collection, which are stored in the vulnerable museum basement.
Classroom space in the building will allow the museum to vastly expand its ational
"The building is vital to our educational mission," Wetenhall said. "We
want to offer in-depth courses for adults. They'll be able to sign up for weeklong
seminars on a variety of topics, from Old Masters to Shakespeare to the art market.
"And we plan to operate a cultural camp for children in the summer."
Designs on the future
The conservation/education building, the new galleries and the visitors pavilion were
designed by the Tampa office of the Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum (HOK) architectural firm.
The St. Petersburg firm of Harvard Jolly Clees Toppe designed the Tibbals Learning Center,
with HOK serving as consultants.
"It's exciting to see everything taking shape," said Yann Weymouth, director of
design of HOK's Tampa office.
Weymouth assisted I.M. Pei in expanding and renovating the Louvre Museum in Paris in the
'80s and '90s. The hallmark of that project was a dazzling, glass-pyramid entranceway that
has become the Louvre's icon.
When Weymouth started the Ringling project, he told museum officials they already had an
icon: The Venetian Gothic archway, which Weymouth incorporated into the design for the
"It will symbolize the beginning of your experience at the Ringling complex," he
The new buildings were designed to complement, but not copy, the existing structures,
Weymouth said. Quoting an architecture writer, he noted that "Some buildings are
intended to be signpost buildings, and others are background buildings.
"The Ringling already had the signposts: The art museum and C d'Zan. I hope that
the new buildings will be judged to be distinguished architecture.
"But they're not intended to say, 'Look at me.' They have different purposes."
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