This is a beautiful, beautiful building,” remarked Board of Trustees Chair Dean Eisner at the December 9, 2017 ribbon-cutting that marked the complete top-to-bottom opening  of the Richard and Barbara Basch Visual Arts Center (VAC) at Ringling College of Art and Design, “but what’s really more relevant is what’s going on inside. This is a testament to the desire of the College to find and inspire creativity in the students, in the faculty, and in the community.”

President Larry R. Thompson soon took the podium on the decidedly chilly overcast Saturday to announce, “What a wonderful afternoon!” Why? Because, while the weather wasn’t up to Sarasota standards, the $13.7-million, 38,660 square foot VAC certainly exceeded all expectations. More than once throughout its development and construction, Dr. Thompson found himself amazed, as did the students who watched with wonder as the steel and glass came together over the months into the modernist-inspired structure that is itself a work of art.

Dr. Thompson went on to explain that the purpose of a traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony is to acknowledge an opening or to herald a passage of a portal or gate into something new. “That’s what we’re here to celebrate today,” he exclaimed to the crowd of donors, trustees, faculty, students, and community members. “We’re here to celebrate something transformational. Something that’s taken a huge amount of work by so many people.”

Indeed, the stunning two-building complex is one of the most impressive on campus. To the west of the central north-south breezeway is a three-story building with workshops and classrooms and studio space. Glass is everywhere, allowing passerby to see all the activity inside and feel a sense of openness, too.

To the east is a tall, single-story building where one finds the glass and sculpture studio workshops as well as the Louis and David Stulberg Gallery, a place that Curator for Exhibitions Mark Ormond says “will provide meaningful educational experiences and encounters with the visual arts. The exhibitions there will examine a broad spectrum of themes, subjects, and time periods.”

Jerry Sparkman of Sweet Sparkman Architects, the architectural firm that designed the VAC, added his company’s congratulations to Ringling College for their pursuit of a more artistic world. He called the building a “creativity powerhouse,” citing that it bursts at the seams- you can feel the movement, the energy. “That’s exactly what we were trying to capture. We wanted to make a place where students can explore their innate creativity potential. “He added that he and Larry Thompson share common ground- they both prefer the word “yes to the word “no.”

“This,” said Sparkman, opening his arms wide towards the VAC, “is a big YES!”

For many years, Ringling College has entrusted Willis Smith Construction with building and renovation work on campus, and with the VAC project, they brought their A game. And as they’ve done before, they dedicated themselves to having as much of the actual physical construction work done by local companies as possible. 36 different trade contractors worked on this project, and 24 of them are based locally in Sarasota or Manatee County, reports David Sessions, the CEO and President of Willis Smith Construction. “We take great pride in our local roots, our local relationships, and our local economic impact.”

In addition to pointing out how the VAC has over 14 miles of data cabling inside it to provide adequate technological access, Sessions explained how the exterior’s uniqueness comes from zinc panels with angled gouges in them that are painted red. “Zinc does not rust,” he explained. “Unlike other materials, zinc panels require no maintenance, and they use a natural chemical reaction where a patina forms that both protects and actually repairs scratches and minor imperfections.” It’s the most durable exterior of any building on campus to date, he promised. It’s mold- and fungus-resistant, and it’ll last for 100+ years without needing painting or care.

The VAC, too, is in the process of being certified LEED silver, making it yet another green building on campus, which is very much in line with Ringling College’s commitment to the environment and sustainability.

It’s no mistake that the VAC is located right in the center of campus, Dr. Thompson added. “No matter where you’re going on campus, you’re passing by or even through it, which is why we have glass on both sides. It’s so people can see what’s going on inside. And the reason it’s in the center of campus? It symbolizes the importance of the art component of ‘art and design.’” He’s exactly right since the VAC is very much a building about the fine arts, housing the College’s first professional-level glass making studio with its huge furnace and cold shop for carving, casting, and polishing. It also offers brand-new equipment for students to have hands-on experience in a range of media such as printmaking, wood, metal, sculpting, photography, and digital fabrication, as well as 3D printing and laser cutting.

“This building,” explained Richard Basch right before the ribbon was officially cut to signify the VAC being 100% open for business, “is an example of unintended consequences that have become consequential. We started this building out as a glassblowing facility, maybe 1500 square feet. That didn’t y, so now we have this,” he said with a smile. “Unintended consequences became consequential.”

Dr. Thompson summed up what the VAC means to the entire community, saying, “Richard and Barbara, you’re transforming the College forever. You’re transforming its footprint. You’re transforming the lives of our students who are here now, and those who will be here in the future. You two are the epitome of what inspiration, hopefulness, and generosity can do.”

By Ryan G. Van Cleave
Ryan is the author of 20 books as well as a writing coach and freelance writer. He also runs the new Creative Writing major at Ringling College of Art and Design.