PRESERVING THE PAST; INSPIRING THE FUTURE
As I walked through the halls of the new Sarasota Art Museum on the Ringling College Museum Campus with Executive Director and Chief Curator Anne-Marie Russell, I could almost hear the 3 o’clock bell ring, dismissing classes for the day, with hundreds of students rushing through the hallways of the former Sarasota High School. It is one of the many magical things about this building, this unmistakable link with its past.
While the spirit of those former Sailors lives on, this campus is all about the future, about the art of our times that surprises, inspires, and challenges us, and about learning that enriches, excites, and never ends.
The former Sarasota High School, one of the Gulf Coast’s most enduring landmarks, has been given new life as the Ringling College Museum Campus. Fully opening in December 2019, the Museum Campus houses the College’s Continuing Studies program and its much-anticipated Sarasota Art Museum.
In a city with a history of tearing down some of its most distinctive architectural treasures—the Lido Casino, the John Ringling Towers, and its railroad depot, to name but a few—the new Museum Campus is a remarkable exception. The campus is comprised of buildings in which the past, present, and future are inextricably, beautifully, and functionally linked.
Through an adaptive-reuse renovation costing $30 million, the 80,000-square-foot Museum Campus transforms the historic former high school into a state-of-the-art museum and learning facility while retaining characteristics of its past. Home to Sarasota’s only dedicated contemporary art museum, the Museum Campus offers more than 15,000 square feet of exhibition space; classrooms, art studios, and a ceramics studio for the Continuing Studies program, which includes the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and Studio + Digital Arts; a 110-seat auditorium; retail store, named the Shop; and, in Summer 2020, a café to be called Bistro. Thanks to its generous donors, many of these spaces are named. It is anticipated that more than 125,000 guests will visit the Sarasota Art Museum each year, along with the thousands who will participate in the various educational programming offered at the campus.
“Creating this amazing Ringling College Museum Campus took the commitment and support of many,” noted Ringling College of Art and Design President Larry R. Thompson. “Everyone who was involved in getting us here should take great pride in having helped to build a campus that is dedicated to serving the community. With the region’s only contemporary art museum and opportunities for lifelong learning across all disciplines, the Museum Campus will serve as a gathering place for our community to engage, to have their minds broadened, and to just have fun. That we were able to save an iconic piece of our history and landscape is yet one more reason to celebrate this wonderful community treasure.”
THE MUSEUM & MUSEUM CAMPUS
Visitors to the Museum Campus enter from Willis Smith Way, which, according to Russell, “gives you the first beautiful reveal of the architecture that unites the 1926 three-story Collegiate Gothic Elliott building with the 1959 Paul Rudolph building. What’s really interesting is that while the historic façade of the Elliott Building is preserved, we have a new façade in the back that ties these two buildings together.”
The Bistro, scheduled to open in Summer 2020, will spill out from the Rudolph building, which is connected to the Elliott building by a corridor, onto the beautiful Marcy & Michael Klein Plaza, which connects the two structures. The Rudolph building is also home to Continuing Studies classrooms and studios.
A few steps take you to the glass entry doors that lead into the new sunlight-infused Wendy G. Surkis & Peppi Elona Lobby, connected to the beautiful historic lobby, which retains the original mosaic floor. Off the lobby are the Museum Shop, Continuing Studies office and classrooms, and the Sarasota High School Alumni Auditorium.
The Sarasota Art Museum is a kunsthalle, a museum without a permanent collection that will instead present rotating exhibits of contemporary art from World War II to present day. Art greets you from the moment you step on the campus, through the lobby, and onto the second and third floors. The second floor consists of nearly 10,000 square feet of exhibition space in named galleries and a cozy conversation corner situated on the Jan Schmidt Loggia where guests can take a few moments to relax and take in the view of Klein Plaza.
The third floor provides 5,000 square feet of additional exhibition space, including a cathedral-like space that allows for large-scale pieces, and a library that offers information about current exhibits.
For the Museum’s inaugural exhibition, the second-floor galleries hosted the works of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. The third floor galleries came alive in Color: Theory & B/W, a group exhibition on display through May 31, and a dramatic site-specific installation by Sheila Hicks in the Tom & Sherry Koski Gallery. The art continued outdoors with Los Trompos, an interactive sculpture reminiscent of a child’s spinning top.
The historic façade of the Museum Campus includes the Great Lawn and its Meander, a pathway that invites guests to do just that—meander, while contemplating the art currently on display or the discussion had in class. The pathway weaves from the Great Lawn to The Works, a distinctive Victor Lundy-designed building just to the north of the Museum Campus that served as the Museum’s headquarters during the renovation.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
The story of the Sarasota Art Museum and the Ringling College Museum Campus began more than 16 years ago in living rooms and dining rooms across Sarasota.
A group that became known as The Founders began with Elizabeth and David Kruidenier and Dick and Linda Roe Dickinson and grew to include Mark and Irene Kauffman, Robert and Dottie Baer Garner, Bruce Bachmann, Dr. Richard and Barbara Basch, Murray Bring, Brooke Callanen, Koni Findlay, Dr. Angèle Cristine Isaac, Elaine Keating, Tom Koski, Flora Major, John Meyer, Keith Monda, Kat Schultz, Lois Stulberg, Wendy Surkis, and Peppi Elona. They all agreed: The one thing missing from the Gulf Coast landscape was a contemporary art museum.
Members of this group brought forward the idea of a contemporary art museum, and for 16 years its members volunteered their time, passion, and treasure to make it happen. Their contagious enthusiasm spurred a movement to back the new Museum throughout the Sarasota community.
With the will but needing help, the group turned to Ringling College of Art and Design President Larry R. Thompson, hoping he might be able to help devise a plan for moving the project forward. President Thompson was intrigued, offering to attend Founders meetings and sit in the back of the room—and listen. “My first thought was that if Ringling College is going to be a pre-eminent art and design college, one of the ways we can showcase the College is by having a world-class art museum, especially contemporary art. It doesn’t have to have it, but it adds greatly to the esteem,” President Thompson said. “The second was about connecting with the local community. Then the founders did this study about putting the Museum on the bay, we realized that, with an estimated $70 million price tag, it would never happen. It was just too expensive,” he said.
That might have been the end of the story if not for the Sarasota High School New Life Initiative formed in 2004 to try to find a new use for the historic—and long-abandoned—Sarasota High School. When President Thompson learned from Founder Mark Kauffman that the group was trying to decide what to do with this historic building and seeking proposals, he said, “I thought: If we and the Founders collaborate here, we could really make this happen.”
The initial idea was for Ringling College of Art and Design and the Museum to operate separately while sharing the space and the costs. However, another idea soon emerged: To combine their operations under the Ringling College of Art and Design umbrella. The School Board approved the plan and offered a 99-year lease for $1 a year.
For President Thompson, it was a natural collaboration. “Those who like contemporary art should like Ringling College of Art and Design. So, the new Museum Campus would serve as a way for the community to engage more fully with the College, and vice versa,” he said.
Everything seemed to be falling into place. Now all that was needed was $22 million before construction could begin.
Stepping up to take charge of the fundraising was one of the original founders, Wendy Surkis. She was the volunteer president of the project since its inception in 2003. Wendy had retired in 2001 and moved to the area after building a New York advertising agency into an international company with more than $100 million in sales.
“I was recently retired at the age of 50, full of energy, eager to explore, experiment, and smell the roses. Clearly, I had a new unfamiliar luxury— free time—as I transitioned from being a workaholic business woman,” Surkis said. “The thought of creating a new modern and contemporary art museum was quite compelling. It would add to Sarasota’s cultural community and become a go-to place for people of all ages where they would have the opportunity to explore new ideas through the visual arts. They would learn, grow, and gain greater insights and understandings through art. All of this was very exciting to me. And, when we were awarded the historic Sarasota High School, saving it and revitalizing it by giving it a new, vibrant life while paying tribute to the thousands of Sarasota High alums, it made me even more driven to achieve our goal,” she said.
“We started raising money and we met a lot of people we didn’t know,” President Thompson said. “They would come to the College and fall in love and soon they would end up supporting both organizations.”
“Since 2003 my life had been focused on this project, from morning to night,” Surkis said. “On the magical day of May 31, 2014, we fulfilled our $22 million fundraising goal. We did it! It was a joyous day and I was both exhilarated and exhausted,” Surkis said. In celebration, hundreds of guests came out for a lively and well-attended gala on the grounds of the future Museum to mark the occasion. Spirits—and expectations—were running high, as the community was anticipating a 2016 Museum opening.
Just as the renovations were beginning, the School Board offered to add the Paul Rudolph annex to the project, which changed, well, everything. While its addition to the project meant scrapping existing plans, it was also the proverbial deal that Museum planners could not refuse—and led to a complete reimagining of the project. It also necessitated raising an additional $8 million to complete the expanded project.
As President Thompson said in a recent interview with Jay Handelman of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “Now we had space to put in a bistro, a multi-purpose room, all those things that we couldn’t cram into that one historic high school. Now it was a chance to make this an engaging place for the entire community. It could be so much more than any of us had originally envisioned,” President Thompson said.
LEARNING THAT NEVER ENDS
Ringling College Continuing Studies at the Museum Campus includes the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) and Studio & Digital Arts. Together, these enrichment programs are a vital and vibrant part of the Sarasota community. Providing art and educational opportunities taught by engaging teachers, speakers, and some Ringling College faculty, Ringling College Continuing Studies at the Museum Campus fosters a community that enhances knowledge, yes, but that also connects. This new facility provides a thought-provoking setting that creates opportunities for meaningful dialogue among this learning community through engagement with contemporary art, participation in stimulating courses and lectures, and provision of gathering spaces to enjoy friends, old and new.
OLLI offers hundreds of courses across myriad topics for lifelong learners of all skill levels in Sarasota and Manatee counties. It is a place where the community comes together to learn about topics as varied as finance, politics, foreign languages, and technology without the pressure of credits or prerequisites. Today’s OLLI grew from the Lifelong Learning Academy (LLA), which merged with Ringling College of Art and Design in 2015, and Pierian Spring Academy, which followed suit in 2016. Together, they became the Lifelong Learning Academy (LLA) at Ringling College. In 2017, it was accepted into the prestigious Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program of the Bernard Osher Foundation. There are 124 OLLIs; each state plus the District of Columbia has at least one. They are located on college campuses across the nation, including at Ivy League and Big 10 schools. Together, OLLIs represent the gold standard in lifelong learning. Janna Overstreet, director of OLLI at Ringling College, noted that “We are so proud to be an OLLI and to serve this community of avid learners.”
Steve Thaxton, executive director of the National Resource Center for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, noted that he had only one thing to say about the Museum Campus: “Holy Cow.” He continued, “There are only about 10 percent of OLLI institutes that have dedicated spaces, and none can compete with this one.”
Continuing Studies at the Museum Campus also includes the Studio + Digital Arts program, which enables students of all ages and skill levels to attend non-credit art and design classes, workshops, and lectures. Students can learn new skills, refresh old ones, and experiment with techniques like laser cutting, 3D digital modeling, or ceramics, offered at the new Linda & Dick Dickinson Ceramics Studio at the Museum Campus.
THE RENOVATION AND OPENING
The project that began as a wouldn’t-it-be-nice dream in 2003 finally began to take shape in 2015 with Keenan/Riley (K/R) as design architect for the project, Lawson Group Architects as lead architect of the adaptive reuse of the buildings, and Willis Smith on construction. 2015 was also the year that Anne-Marie Russell was hired by the College as executive director and chief curator of the Museum.
Russell describes the work of her first five years with this project as three-fold: Assisting with the design and construction to ensure the Museum was a world-class facility; building the organizational, business, and governing infrastructure of a new cultural institution meant to last centuries; and conceptualizing and designing the curatorial and educational program for the Museum’s first three years. Russell also began reaching out to contemporary art lovers, hosting a series of popular, well-attended programs at The Works.
Her first year was spent learning all she could about Sarasota, its history, and its sense of community. It was time well spent, as she learned important lessons that today we see incorporated into the new Museum Campus. “All of that ethnographic and historical research has informed our curatorial vision,” Russell said. “Sarasota’s rich history of engaging with the avant-garde, whether Bertha Palmer’s pioneering act of collecting impressionist paintings or Syd and Annie Solomon’s beach salons bringing new art and ideas to Sarasota, has informed some of our upcoming exhibitions,” she said.
“While the construction is complete (save for the Bistro), much of my previous work continues, but with the added work of running the complex business of an art museum. Plus, many art installations are complex from a construction standpoint, and a kunsthalle changes exhibitions every four months or so, so unlike a permanent collection, we’re never done. It’s a perpetual evolution!” Russell said. “Over the next two years, we hope to provide more amazing art experiences for visitors,” she said. “We hope to inspire more people to engage with the global world of contemporary art, to cultivate their curiosity, and to open their minds with new art and new ideas, hopefully helping them to interact meaningfully with the world around them.”