New Ringling Museum Offers Remarkable Transformation

Edward Hopper's Painting
SARASOTA -

A visitor to the new Ringling Museum approaches through a grand lobby in the new visitor's pavilion, past bamboo groves, sculpture gardens and magnificent marble pillars marking the entrance to the art museum.

It's a remarkable transformation from the crumbling, leaky, decrepit old building that served as the museum's home since circus millionaire John Ringling built the facility in the 1920's to house his growing collection of painting and sculpture masterpieces.

The new 30,000 square foot Ulla and Arthur Searing Wing will house new masterpieces in the future.

WETENHALL: We have a major impressionism show coming;' an Egyptian Treasure show coming, Grandma Moses, Disney, Goya prints, magnificent shows. So I think we can present to our regional community as well as tourists, we can show a vibrant exhibition schedule worthy of any major American city.

That's Ringling Museum's Executive Director John Wetenhall. He's thrilled about the expansion and says it's the final piece of a collage the museum's board began to assemble several years ago

WETENHALL: It's the culmination of the Ringling master plan that began with the Tibbals Circus Museum, the Visitor's Pavillion and the new education wing and finally, these art galleries. You put them together and the Ringling has doubled in size.

Wetenhall says the Ringling board of directors realized that the entire museum campus was beginning to show its age.

WETENHALL: The Circus Museum and the art museum were failing and so they knew that they needed to address a long-term plan. First for renovation and then to supply the facilities that had not been built over the decades that other museums would have naturally had. A nice library, classrooms, meeting rooms, visitor services, none of that was here because the Ringling was a 1920's museum facility.

Now, the Ringling complex includes the art museum with its expanded gallery space, Ca d'Zan, John and Mable Ringling's Venetian style mansion overlooking Sarasota Bay and the the new Tibbals Learning Center and Circus Museum. The Tibbals Center houses a painstakingly accurate 3,000 square-foot scale-model of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus the way it would have looked in the 1930's. The campus also is home to the historic Asolo Theater.

The architect chosen to design the new museum wing is the former Chief of Design for the famed architect I.M. Pei. Yann Weymouth worked with Pei on the National Gallery in Washington and the Louvre in Paris. Weymouth says much thought was given to the materials and design for the Ringling expansion.

WEYMOUTH: Twenty-first century, cutting edge lighting, flexibility, air conditioning, humidity. You can feel that the humidity and the temperature are very carefully controlled, laboratory conditions to preserve the art in these galleries. Bamboo floors, oak detailing. So that when you're looking at the paintings (this is something that is very important to me as an architect) you're not thinking about the architecture when you're looking at the paintings, you're thinking about the paintings.

Museum Director Wetenhall says everyone involved in the design of the complex agreed that the architectural style should accentuate the artwork rather than detract from it.

WETENHALL: There was a conscious decision in this project between the Ringling and Yann Weymouth that we would understate somewhat the exterior appeal of the buildings and make them subtly merge with the original Ringling estate and adopt the aesthetic that Ringling established in the 1920s. Therefore the colonnade in the front of this new building echoes the original loge of the art museum. The Visitor's Center is hidden behind trees, it's really radical architecture in that it's so subtle and understated.

Subtle it may be, but the exterior of the building is nevertheless breathtaking with its marble balustrade and walkway surrounded by sculpture gardens and luxuriously landscaped ponds.

Two major new exhibits will open the expanded facility: an exhibit of more than 70 paintings by American masters on loan from the Corcoran Gallery and a collection of jewelry featuring pieces ranging from 5,000 years old to works crafted in the 20th century.

The current exhibits in the new Searing Wing of the museum will be on display through May 27th.

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