The title of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is slightly misleading, as those who visit will quickly discover. There is far more to this attraction than just the world-class art collection, a legacy from the Ringlings to the state of Florida, within its purpose-built gallery. This remarkable collection includes European, American, and Asian artworks ranging from Gothic and Renaissance to contemporary paintings and sculptures.
Within the grounds there is the decadent Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, home of John and mable Ringling as well as the 18th century Asolo Theater, a beautiful performing arts venue. Perhaps most entertaining of all, the Circus Museum includes a huge miniature model of a typical early 20th century circus along with restored wagons, costumes, films, memorabilia, and the Ringlings’ original Pullman railcar. Allow a full day for your visit, or better still invest in a 3-day pass and spread the pleasures!
For most visitors, the first stop will be at the Tibbals Learning Center which houses the first part of the Ringling Circus Museum. Wander around the 3,800 square foot model of a typical travelling circus in the early 20th century. The scale and logistics of having such a show on the road become apparent as you enjoy this beautifully recreated circus “village” of animals, wagons, tents, sideshows, and rail cars that transported 1300 workers and performers, plus 800 animals over 15,000 miles each year!
In the Golden Age of the Tented Circus (1919-1938), circuses such as Barnum and Bailey, Howard Bros, and the Ringling Brothers would cover 150 towns erecting a Big Top to seat 15,000 visitors. The model is beautifully made and can be viewed from all angles to see visitors, animals, tents, and performances along with railroad carriages and animal cages in the menagerie. The atmosphere is perfectly staged with lively circus music, lion roars, and canned laughter playing in the background.
Once you can tear yourself away, the second floor has a colorful collection of memorabilia, showcased miniatures, costumes, videos, and exhibits which all build up the picture of the workings of a 1920s circus. See the glorious bandwagon that was pulled through the streets of New York City by 40 black horses ahead of the traditional street parade and enjoy the interactive exhibits which are part of this display.
The neighboring Museum building is just as amazing with galleries of hand-carved animal wagons and the restored “Wisconsin” Railroad Car used by John and Mable Ringling and their friends. Built in 1905 by Pullman, the private railroad car was 79 feet long, 10 feet wide and 14 feet high and it lacked nothing. Stained glass, decorated domed ceilings, a kitchen, observation lounge, dining room, and staff quarters have all been restored to their former luxurious standard. The three staterooms had upper and lower berths which converted into sofa seating, washstands, toilets, and even a full-size bathtub!
During the winter, the circus originally rested at its winter quarters. From 1928 onwards, Sarasota was the chosen winter destination for the Ringling Circus, known as the Greatest Show on Earth. The mild weather allowed shows to continue throughout the winter for the first time.
Ringling Museum of Art
Finally, head to the pink colonnaded buildings which were completed in 1929 to house John Ringling’s considerable art collection. The Renaissance-style buildings surround a sunken Italian courtyard garden complete with gushing fountains, water features, potted bougainvilla and many statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David. The original was initially installed at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.
Complimentary docent-led tours of the art museum are available at certain times to help you get more from your visit to this impressive legacy of artworks, or you can stroll through the galleries reading the exhibit labels. There is also a 30-minute film of the lives of John and Mable Ringling.
The museum has some circus-themed artworks and sculptures as well as wonderful masterpieces by Rubens, van Dyck, Titian, El Greco, Gainsborough, and Velazquez. Many of these were purchased by Ringling from collections made when grand European country houses closed and sold off their assets, accumulated during the traditional Grand Tours of Europe in the 18th century.
Two of the galleries in the art museum were historic salon interiors bought from the Astor mansion in New York City prior to the demolition of the house in 1926. As you pass from room to room appreciating this remarkable legacy, you are sure to find some favorites in the paintings, silverware, statues, busts, and 20th century photographs which make up this eclectic museum.
Along with the house and gardens, this remarkable art collection was bequeathed to the state of Florida when John Ringling passed away in 1936. It is now the State Art Museum of Florida, a national treasure, giving pleasure to many thousands of visitors each year.
General Admission includes entrance to the Museum of Art, the Circus Museums, a self-guided tour of the first floor of the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion, and the gardens.
There are many more interesting places to visit in my book Favorite Days Out in Central Florida which is available in all formats.