Sarasota, FL is a growing and pleasant community on the Gulf of Mexico and happens to be home to the John and Mable Ringling Art and Circus Museums, along with the Mansion they built in 1920’s. While we did not know about the museums or the mansion before arriving in the area, I was vaguely aware that the Ringling Bros. Circus wintered in the area during it heydays.
Before visiting the museum compound, we took a quick tour of the waterfront and found a sculpture remembering the sacrifices of many people during WWII. It is called the “Unconditional Surrender”. It sits in a small park on the Bay for relaxing and watching the activity taking place on the water. We also took a tour of the downtown area and enjoyed a good meal in one of the many restaurants to be found there.
John Ringling, who owned the circus along with his three brothers, thought that the Sarasota area was the place to be and purchased some waterfront property in 1913 and later added to that property and decided to build his dream home on that site in 1924. He and his wife Mable became very involved in local society and their new home became the center of the local social scene.
The Ringling’s did very well with the circus and managed to collect a significant number of art pieces and eventually built a museum on the property to hold their collection. After his death in 1936, the entire estate was donated to the state of Florida and eventually came under the control of the Florida State University. The museum is considered to be among the best in the country. Eventually, a Circus Museum was added and finally a learning center that was the sole effort of Howard Tibbals.
The Museum of Art has a large collection of European artists, with a particularly large amount of Rubens’ works. It is well worth the visit. We also enjoyed the Circus Museum collection of Ringling Bros. equipment and stories which provides a great deal of information on the history and complexity of the operation. It chronicles the circus from its beginnings to the end of the outdoors Big Top era in 1956, when the modern amusements made this form of entertainment less attractive. At its peak, the circus would travel with over 1300 employees and hundreds of animals and sufficient equipment to be able to be self sufficient where ever it traveled. This included over 140 railroad cars and all the necessities of a small town. When set up, the Circus covered over 20 acres of ground.
The Circus learning center was completed in 2005 and consists of a complete model of a typical large circus (modeled on the Ringling Bros. Circus) and has amazingly detailed models of all phrases of circus life. Howard Tibbals worked on this project over a period of 50 years and culminated in the learning center, where it took a full year to install all the models in the center.
As part of your entrance fee, you also may tour the Ringling Mansion and hear additional information on the life and times of the John Ringling family. The mansion is in a great location. Some might say that the decorative style was a bit garish, but then they were circus folks. I personally could get use to spending lots of the time on the waterfront veranda.
We spent four hours on the grounds and that was barely enough time to see it all.