Close the Ringling? Really?

By Lennie Bennett, Times Art Critic

Published Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Closing the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art: truth or dare?

The state Legislature and Florida State University, which respectively fund and own the museum, have entered into a game of brinkmanship over the fate of the internationally famous Sarasota institution. It's the largest university museum complex in the United States, with a world-class collection of Old Master paintings in its art museum. In addition, it includes Ca d'Zan, the historic home of its founder, John Ringling; the restored 18th century Asolo Theater; an education center, library and art conservation lab; and a Circus Museum considered one of the finest in the United States, all on 66 acres of waterfront. It is the only state art museum in Florida.

One of the cost-saving ideas FSU has floated in response to the Legislature's threat of enormous budget cuts is to shutter it all, emptying the grounds and buildings of everyone but security guards.

"Closing the Ringling would be a dreadful occurrence," said Sallie McRorie, dean of the College of Visual Arts whose responsibilities include the museum and the adjacent FSU/Asolo Conservatory. "But if the House budget is the final version, we're looking at overall cuts to the university budget of up to $77 million."

Many believe the idea is a grandstand ploy to draw the attention to FSU's plight that the loss of, say, an apparel design program would not, forcing the Legislature to back down and find more money for it and other educational institutions.

"We — our delegation," says Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, "would do everything to help the Ringling. But FSU has the discretion about where they would make their cuts. I believe they are trying to dramatize this."

And the Ringling makes a valuable pawn because, unlike most programs that would typically be targeted for a shutdown, it is neither underused nor struggling.

"We have never had a stronger year," said Ringling director John Wetenhall.

Ringling opened a fully-funded, $76 million expansion in 2007 with an endowment of $60 million. The museum raises more than half of its yearly $13.5 million budget on its own. Its attendance has climbed to about 300,000 annually, even in these tough times. Its members total about 10,000, very high by national art museum standards according to Ford Bell, president of the Association of American Museums, whose statistics show the average membership numbers for art museums to be less than 1,000. The Ringling recently received an $8 million gift to expand its Circus Museum.

The argument to mothball the Ringling given by the FSU board of trustees is that it does not directly serve enough FSU students and so should receive lower funding priority. Closing it would save the $7.6 million that's allocated to pay for basics such as maintenance and utilities.

"What I think they're missing," says Sandy Rief, chairman of the Ringling Board and a prominent Tampa attorney specializing in tax and estate planning, "is that the statute written when we merged with FSU in 2001 does not say anything about a mission to provide education at FSU although we do have an excellent educational program. I know there are no easy answers but we're fulfilling everything asked of us and more."

The Ringling Museum, Ca d'Zan and the grounds have been owned by the state since 1936, the year John Ringling died and bequeathed the property to Florida to protect it from creditors. Despite its collections, advancing the Ringling — even preserving it — was never a priority of elected officials who could always be counted on to decrease the Ringling's line in the state budget in favor of their own interests. And because most potential donors knew it was owned by the state, they believed it was the responsibility of it to support the museum. They were already contributing through taxes so why give more?

During John McKay's tenure as Senate president, he and then FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte brokered a deal in 2000 to transfer ownership of the museum to the university. That way, the museum's budget would be part of FSU's larger one and not subject to any adjustments by the Legislature. For that reason, museum leaders say they are still better off under this arrangement.

Measures of an art museum's worth and stature are more than attendance and donations, even though those keep its doors open. One of the best indicators is who wants to borrow its art. The Ringling gets hundreds of requests but is selective: The Louvre, the Tate Britain, the Vatican, the Royal Palace of Turin (Italy), for example, as well as top-tier U.S. museums.

It has slashed its budget and reduced staff but still has an ambitious schedule. In October it hosts the Ringling International Arts Festival in partnership with the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. The five-day event will bring in classical and experimental music, dance and theater and debut original works from artists around the world. Upcoming special exhibitions include Venetian art of the 18th century and art of the gilded age.

If no or little funding comes from the FSU budget, the Ringling cannot tap into its endowment beyond the 4.5 percent it draws yearly under FSU guidelines. Nor can it, under the terms of John Ringling's will, sell any of the art. (Doing so would also make the Ringling a pariah in the museum world.) Rief says the museum would probably cobble together the money needed to operate minimally.

"Do I think they can close the Ringling?" he says. "Theoretically, yes. Realistically, no."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.

The Ringling and its treasures

The art museum: The collection includes several hundred examples of Renaissance and Baroque art; its most famous are probably four enormous 17th century tapestry works by Peter Paul Rubens.

Ca d'Zan: The mansion designed by celebrity architect Dwight Baum for John and Mable Ringling in the 1920s, given a $15 million restoration in 2002, mimics a Venetian palazzo. Ninety-five percent of the original furnishings remain.

The Asolo Theater: The museum purchased the 18th century theater in Italy in 1950, had it reassembled in Sarasota and used it for years for its popular repertory theater. After years of deterioration, it was restored and fitted into the new Visitors' Center, used for performances and lectures.

The Circus Museum: Ringling amassed a sizable collection of circus memorabilia during his long career as a big-top impresario. In 2006, businessman Howard Tibbals donated $5.5 million to build a new wing to house a hand-built scale replica of a circus. The museum is considered one of the top of its kind in the nation.

The grounds: The museum sits on 66 acres on Sarasota Bay and includes Mable Ringling's rose garden as she designed and planted it.

Back to St Pete Times Page. . .

Back to Home Page. . .