Ringling transformed

Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 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 experience."

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.

The ringmaster

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 thousands."

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 nature."

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," Wetenhall said.

Under construction southwest of the art museum, the building is scheduled to open in spring 2007.

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 programs.

"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 visitors' pavilion.

"It will symbolize the beginning of your experience at the Ringling complex," he said.

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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