Ringling Museum History
John Ringling, one of the five original circus kings of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was blessed with entrepreneurial genius and through his success with the circus and other investments, became quite wealthy. In 1911, John (1866-1936) and his wife, Mable (1875-1929) purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in Sarasota, Florida. In 1912 the couple began spending winters in Sarasota and later decided to build a home there. Their property included a house built by one of Buffalo Bill’s circus managers, Charles Thompson. The Ringlings dreamed of helping Sarasota develop into a metropolitan boom town and they became involved in the community, bought real estate, and eventually owned approximately 25 percent of Sarasota’s total area.
The couple’s first project in Sarasota was the splendid Venetian Gothic mansion Cà d’Zan, built between 1924 and 1926 for a then staggering sum of $1.5 million. Mable had developed an affection for Venetian buildings on their travels and collected sketches and photos to incorporate into the design of the house which reflects both her and John’s taste and passion for opulence. She supervised the construction of the house with architect Dwight James Baum, designer of several New York mansions.
In the spirit of America's wealthiest Gilded Age industrialists, John Ringling gradually acquired a significant art collection, including paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Velàzquez, Poussin, van Dyck and other Baroque masters, as well as rare antiquities from Cyprus. He built a palace for his treasures in a 21-gallery Museum of Art on his Sarasota property.
The Florentine style building emulates the Uffizi Gallery and was specifically designed to house his collection of European paintings and art objects. The Ringlings had accumulated a treasure trove of objects, the result of many trips to Europe while searching for new circus acts. For years they acquired columns, architectural details and many fine art pieces. The result is a museum with a courtyard filled with bronze replicas of Greek and Roman sculpture, including a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David.
John Ringling bequeathed his art collection, mansion and estate to the people of the State of Florida at the time of his death in 1936.
For nearly ten years after John Ringling’s death, the Ringling Museum was opened irregularly and not professionally maintained. Cà d’Zan was used privately and remained closed to the public, while the State of Florida fought with creditors over the fate of the estate. By 1946, the State prevailed, and title was transferred to the people of Florida.
Under normal circumstances, the $1.2 million endowment that John Ringling left with his estate would have grown over time, its proceeds preserving the estate and its treasures.
Managed by government, the funds languished without the benefit of strategic investing. Meanwhile the local community, convinced that the Ringling Museum was the State’s responsibility, did little to support the Ringling Museum. Gradually, the care that historic buildings require – weatherproofing, mechanical upgrades, and occasional refurbishing – was put off or handled piecemeal. As neglect led to crisis, private supporters came forth to keep the Museum open, while dedicated and under-funded staff struggled to fulfill the Museum’s vast potential. But over time the challenge became overwhelming.
By the late 1990s, the decay from deferred maintenance had reached a critical point. The Cà d’Zan mansion was falling apart, the roof of the Museum of Art leaked, and the building completed in 1957 to house the Historic Asolo Theater was condemned. Antiquated security systems no longer provided adequate protection for art. Weathered footpaths and cracking roads gave the once venerable estate a tired look of ruin. The future of the Ringling Estate was uncertain.
In 2000, Ringling’s original $1.2 million endowment had hardly grown to $2 million. Governance was transferred from the State of Florida’s Department of State to Florida State University establishing the Ringling estate as one of the largest museum/university complexes in the nation. As part of the University, the Museum has experienced a rebirth. In 2002, when $42.9 million was provided through the State for new buildings, it came with a condition that the Ringling board raise $50 million in endowment within five years. Impossible as the task then seemed, more than $55 million was donated or pledged by 2007. The transformation that culminated in 2007 restored all the existing buildings and expanded the Estate with four new buildings on the Museum’s Master Plan: the Tibbals Learning Center, the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion – housing the Historic Asolo Theater, the Education/Conservation Building and The Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing. The Museum’s financial footing was also secured with the beginnings of a healthy endowment.