Inside the New Sarasota Art Museum
(Above) © Ryan Gamma
What happens when you turn a historic high school campus into a world-class museum? You get the much-anticipated Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College, which just reopened its doors October of 2020.
A cartoon character named Mickey Mouse appeared for the first time, in Steamboat Willie. The Yo-Yo was the latest and greatest toy. And a daily newspaper only cost 2 cents. That’s what was happening when the first class graduated from Sarasota High School, designed by architect Leo Elliott.
Today, a different kind of class graces the hallways of the South Tamiami Trail building – we mean world-class art curated by experts and displayed in a dynamic new space designed to preserve the past while showcasing the future. Welcome to the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College, a division of Ringling College of Art + Design, which, after a much-anticipated initial premiere in late 2019 has once again re-opened its doors after the recent pandemic. It has been a long-time coming too: A group of local residents first met to talk about creating a contemporary art museum in town a whopping 16 years ago. Now, the venue – which, in its first three weeks of opening, garnered attention from The New York Times – expects at least 125,000 annual visitors to explore the gleaming space and take part in educational programming.
Architects, collaborating with more than 700 workers have taken the original Collegiate Gothic-style building (known as the Elliott) and “married” it, using a courtyard lined by palm trees, with two adjacent properties on the college campus: A former furniture showroom known as The Works and an 18,000-square-foot Rudolph Building.
The restoration and adaptation of Sarasota High School tells a story of its own, as the pine floors repurposed from joists may be up to 600 years old. Look down at your feet, as well, to see the Arts & Crafts tile mosaics near the exit.
But mostly, your gaze will be drawn upward: to the exhibitions from Brazilian-born artists experimenting with diamonds and sugar for “photographic delusions” and to colorful kaleidoscopic patterns. The soaring, cathedral ceilings of the third floor provide the current backdrop for “an ongoing investigation of art and color.”
The surrounding grounds, meanwhile, are as playful as the P.E. classes that once took place here. “Jen Zail” looks like a locked-up log, but is actually a scope for spying on passers-by as vines grow into the framework for a butterfly microclimate. Mexican artists have woven vibrant colored fabrics into replicas of spinning tops for “Los Trompos,” which also serve as rotating seats as visitors contemplate the contemporary art site. Korean perfectionist potters who have destroyed their imperfect pieces contribute to the smooth “Celadon Landscape” culture.
Events, Boutique, Bistro & More
Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays amplify the museum experience as films, lectures and artist talks explain current exhibitions and the art world at large. “Shop” refers not to woodworking classes, but rather, a boutique filled to the brim with wooden dominos by Keith Harring, a 1977 Stelton vacuum mug designed by Erik Magnussen, and books on mid-century architecture, among other souvenirs.
It’s clearly a different era from 2-cent newspapers, Yo-Yos, and Mickey Mouse: one where artists, architects, community leaders, art-lovers and students of all ages can gather in light-filled spaces to marvel at modern creations. Even better: Instead of a high school cafeteria serving Sloppy Joes and tater tots, guests will find an indoor-outdoor bistro serving artisanal fare with healthy proteins, inspired by Florida’s bounty and farmers’ markets. Constellation Catering provides haute cuisine for event rentals in the loggia, lobby, plaza, and halls.
Now that’s what we call education.