In Sarasota, the subtropics meet the South. Pressed up against the edge of the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida, this city, long home to carnies and cowmen, is best understood as a study in contrast. Now the new Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College, which opened last month, aims to spotlight the city’s cultural depth and diversity.
A cadre of residents forged the idea for a modern art museum more than 15 years ago, because, while there was a wealth of arts organizations in town, few venues dedicated to contemporary art existed. Their conversations led to a $22 million fund-raising effort to reanimate the former site of Sarasota High School as a kunsthalle — a non-collecting art institution showing only temporary exhibits.
Residents, staff and donors hope the nonprofit museum will provide a cross section of modern and contemporary art as complex as this town.
Some of the first Americans in the region were of the Uzita tribe, who died or disappeared after Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century. At the end of the 19th century, Sarasota took shape through agriculture and fishing along the Gulf. Later, writers like John D. Macdonald, Joy Williams and Stephen King would call Sarasota home, as well as architects like Paul Rudolph and Victor Lundy.
“There are so many different Sarasotas,” said Anne-Marie Russell, the museum’s executive director and curator, adding that the city’s layered past serves as a guide for developing the museum’s exhibitions and programs.
While inaugural exhibitions include a retrospective of the Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, and a number of site-specific installations, future shows will highlight the influence of the Sarasota School of Architecture in projects beyond the county lines; the town’s role in the avant-garde; and a project that weaves together commissions, oral histories and public programming to celebrate the region’s history. A group show now on display, “Color. Theory. & b/w” includes a roster of artists like Sheila Hicks and Kara Walker but also Christian Sampson, an artist who grew up in neighboring Bradenton and studied at Ringling College.
The range of exhibitions underscores not only the museum’s commitment to bring international artists, curators and thinkers to Sarasota, but also to better understand those who came of age there or now call the city home.
“Sarasota’s been cosmopolitan for a century because of the circus,” Ms. Russell said of the Ringling Brothers Circus’s presence there. “That set the stage for Sarasota being open to so many different things.”
In 1911, John Ringling and his wife, Mable, bought property along Sarasota Bay, and years later moved the circus’s winter headquarters there. The circus, coupled with a land boom, drew innumerable people to town. After Ringling died in 1936, his art collection and property would later help establish the John and Mable Ringling Art Museum.
The city’s cultural footprint grew in the following decades, with an opera house, a ballet company, the Southeast’s largest repertory theater, an art school and now this new museum.
“That’s what set us apart,” said Jen Ahearn-Koch, Sarasota’s mayor. “We had that magic from the beginning.”
Fittingly, the Sarasota Art Museum’s campus lays claim to some of the area’s most indelible architecture. The main building, which spans 57,000 square feet, was designed in 1926 by M. Leo Elliot as Sarasota High School; it welcomed its last student in 1996. Just behind it, Paul Rudolph — a figurehead of the Sarasota School of Architecture — designed an addition in 1960. The former, a collegiate Gothic building, is now connected to the low-slung modernist one as part of the redesigned museum. The project was led by Lawson Group Architects, with Terence Riley of Keenan/Riley working as the design architect.
The vitality and mystery bound up in this town is something Ms. Russell hopes to find reflected in the museum. “My great hope for the museum is that this becomes Sarasota’s living room and backyard. I want everyone to feel like this is their home; that there’s something here for them.”
Open from Wednesday until Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Sundays when it opens at 11 a.m.; Admission is $15, free to members, Ringling College students & faculty, active military and other groups.