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History of The Ringling

Today, The Ringling, the State Art Museum of Florida, is home to one of the preeminent art and cultural collections in the United States. Its story begins nearly a century ago, with the circus impresario and his beloved wife’s shared love for Sarasota, Italy and art.

The Building of Ca’ d’Zan

John Ringling was one of the five brothers who owned and operated the circus rightly called  “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  His success with the circus and entrepreneurial skills helped to make him, in the Roaring Twenties, one of the richest men in America, with an estimated worth of nearly $200 million.

In 1911, John and his wife, Mable, purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in Sarasota. In 1912, they began spending winters in what was then still a small town. They became active in the community and purchased more and more real estate, at one time owning more than 25 percent of Sarasota’s total area.

After a few years the couple decided to build a house and hired the noted New York architect Dwight James Baum to design it. Mable, who kept a portfolio filled with sketches, postcards and photos, wanted a home in the Venetian Gothic style of the palazzi in Venice, Italy, with Sarasota Bay serving as her Grand Canal. Construction began in 1924 and was completed two years later at a then staggering cost of $1.5 million. Five stories tall, the 36,000 square foot mansion has 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms.

Mable supervised every aspect of the building, down to the mixing of the terra cotta and the glazing of the tiles. Today, the entrance to the grounds is through the Venetian gothic gateway where the Ringlings welcomed their guests to the opulent Ca’ d’Zan, or “House of John” in the Venetian dialect.

The Museum of Art

While traveling through Europe in search of acts for his circus, John Ringling, in the spirit of America’s wealthiest Gilded Age industrialists, began acquiring art and gradually built a significant collection. The more he collected, the more passionate and voracious a collector he became, educating himself and working with dealers such as Julius Bohler. He began buying and devouring art books – that would become the foundation of the Ringling Art Library.

Soon after the completion of Ca’ d’Zan, John built a 21-gallery museum modeled on the Florentine Uffizi Gallery to house his treasure trove of paintings and art objects, highlighted by his collection of Old Masters, including Velazquez, Poussin, van Dyke and Rubens. The result is the museum and a courtyard filled with replicas of Greek and Roman sculpture, including a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David.

John opened the Museum of Art to the public in 1931, two years after the death of his beloved Mable, saying he hoped it would “promote education and art appreciation, especially among our young people.” Five years later, upon his death, Ringling bequeathed it to the people of Florida.

A Period of Decline

Hurt by the Depression, John had by the time of his passing, fallen into debt. Creditors and legal wrangling would delay the settling of his estate for a decade. While the state prevailed and took control in 1946, funds languished. The $1.2 million endowment Ringling left was poorly managed and barely grew. Between 1936 and 1946 the Museum was only occasionally opened and not properly maintained. The Ca’ d’Zan was used privately and remained closed to the public.

Gradually, the care that the buildings required – weatherproofing, mechanical upgrades, and maintenance of Mable’s gardens – was either put off or handled piecemeal. Some private donors came forward to help keep the Museum open, while a dedicated, but severely underfunded staff struggled to fulfill the Museum’s potential.

The Circus Museum and Historic Asolo Theater

There were, however, some bright spots during this period. In 1948, the Museum’s first Director, A. Everett ‘Chick’ Austin, Jr., used Ringling memorabilia to open the first Circus Museum. In 1950 Austin oversaw the purchase of all the decorative elements of a theater originally built in 1798 by architect Antonio Locateli. The theater was originally located in the castle of Queen Caterina Cornaro, the Venetian-born widow of the King of Cyprus, in the town of Asolo near Venice, Italy.

Plans were finally made in 1954 for a separate building to be constructed for the theater off the west end of the Museum’s north wing. The building was constructed, the theater installed during 1955-56, and then completed in 1957. The U-shaped theater, with three tiers of boxes adorned by decorative panels, was used for plays, concerts, operas, lectures, films and other cultural programming. But because of its immense popularity as the center of Sarasota’s culture life, restoration was difficult and long-term deterioration was inevitable. It was finally closed to the public in the late 1990s and remained unused until The Ringling’s recent renaissance.

A New Beginning

In 2000, after years of negotiation, the state passed on governance of the Museum to Florida State University (FSU). As part of the arrangement, the state promised to fund immediate repairs and in 2002 provided through the University another $43 million to fund all four buildings – the Museum of Art, Ca’ d’Zan, Circus Museum and Historic Asolo Theater – provided the Museum board could raise another $50 million within five years. Thanks to a heroic effort by some in the community and truly generous public support, they exceeded beyond expectations and more than $56 million was raised by 2007.

As importantly, a new Director, John Wetenhall, was appointed in 2001 and under his care The Ringling experienced an extraordinary rebirth. A new roof was put on the Museum of Art and the galleries refurbished. Ca’ d’Zan underwent a $15 million restoration. The Historic Asolo Theater was restored and moved inside the new Visitor Pavilion, designed by Yann Weymouth, chief architect for the Pyramide du Louvre and East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., as well as the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The Visitor Pavilion was one of four new buildings added. The Circus Museum Tibbals Learning Center, was built featuring the world’s largest model circus, the Howard Bros. Circus Model, built over 50 years by master model maker and philanthropist Howard Tibbals. A state-of the-art Education Center was also built with storage facilities, offices and an art library that has become an essential resource for scholars, educators and students. The crowning touch, the Searing Wing, provides more than 20,000 square feet of exhibition space capable of accommodating up to four exhibitions at a time.

Interim director Marshall Rousseau, a longtime Ringling supporter, oversaw The Ringling after Wetenhall’s departure and was instrumental in the 2011 hiring of Steven High, who had been serving as the Director and CEO of the Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia.

High is committed to expanding the range of Museum offerings by introducing audiences to those emerging talents in the international arts community who are defining current trends in contemporary art. Under his leadership, Joseph’s Coat, a Skyspace by modern master James Turrell, became part of the Museum’s permanent collection, thrilling audiences by inviting them to contemplate light and perception as they gaze at the sky through a 24-foot aperture, in the ceiling.

High has also overseen the mounting of Paolo Veronese, the first major exhibition of the renaissance artist in over 20 years and the first artist that John Ringling acquired.

To the delight of all, the Tibbals Learning Center has since expanded with the opening of its interactive family galleries, inviting all to experience the excitement of a day at the circus while preserving the legacy of the Museum’s founder and circus king, John Ringling.

In 2013 the David F. Bolger Playspace opened. Made possible by the Bolger Foundation, the Playspace was designed to engage visitors of all ages and abilities in spontaneous play, creating for families and school groups a place to gather and enjoy their visit.

The Future

In December of 2013 ground was broken on a new building that will house the center for Asian art, a dynamic new extension of the Museum of Art that will support teaching and research on Asian art and culture. Scheduled for opening in 2016,  the center for Asian art will provide educational opportunities for students and scholars from around the world and enable the public to better understand and appreciate Asian history and society through exhibitions, programs, and publications. It promises to make the Museum one the most significant centers for Asian art studies in the United States.

“The creation of this exciting new component to The Ringling experience marks a giant step forward in our on-going development and expansion as a center for art education,” Director High has said. Plans call for an early 2014 opening.

The momentum of these and other recent Museum of Art successes have accelerated exciting plans for new acquisitions, buildings and programs, fulfilling John Ringling’s dream of a great cultural center on Florida’s West Coast.

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