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A 'Decade of Collecting' brings Ringling acquisitions to the public eye

For many years, the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art was out of the acquisition business. But the past 10 years have brought a change in direction.


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You’re standing, craning your neck and looking through a simple square skylight.

Or maybe you’re even lying down and looking straight up.

But one thing’s for certain: You’ve never seen the sky like this before.

Joseph’s Coat, a Skyspace designed by James Turrell, provides the figurative and literal entry to the latest exhibition, “A Decade of Collecting,” at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and that’s because it represents a symbolic changing of eras.

“I always thought the completion of this space revitalized and energized our contemporary program,” says Stephen High, executive director of the Ringling Museum of Art. “It energized our acquisition program altogether. So that’s why I start here.”

The museum’s first director, Arthur Everett Austin Jr., was a a Baroque scholar who was also very engaged in contemporary art. But then around 1996, says High, there was a change of direction at the Ringling and contemporary art fell out of favor.

That change of direction lasted more than a decade. Joseph’s Coat was commissioned in 2008 or 2009, says High, and later completed in 2011. And that’s right when another era of the Ringling began.

For the first 50 years of the museum’s existence, says High, the Ringling added just 8,000 works to the collection.

But over the last 11 years, the Ringling has added more than 12,500 pieces, and the “Decade of Collecting” exhibit celebrates both its depth and breadth. There’s sculpture and painting, photography and tapestry involved. Only 100 pieces of the collection are on display; And of course there’s Turrell’s Skyspace, which mixes LED lights with the setting sun for natural eye candy.

High says Joseph’s Coat is temporarily down for maintenance due to complications from Hurricane Ian, but when it’s functioning, it’s a perfect place to watch the sunset.

“The lights are mixing with the sky and gradually reducing light in the sky. The darker it gets, the harder it has to work,” says High. “It starts off with lots of lighter colors. You get into mid or late in the hour and it uses really strong colors — dark blues and reds — to bring more texture out of the sky. Then you get to a point where it's all white. And it’s over.

“But there's another point where the roof and the sky become exactly the same color, like almost a dark gray. And at that moment in time, that entire roof sort of disappears.”

What was the artist going for? He actually wants you to make your own experience. According to his website, Turrell says of his Skyspace projects, “My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought.”

 

Art from all over

High walks through the exhibit and points out a piece purchased in London and another found right here in Sarasota.

A sculpture by Vanessa German has a prominent place in the Ringling's Decade of Collecting. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)
A sculpture by Vanessa German has a prominent place in the Ringling's Decade of Collecting. (Photo by Spencer Fordin)

Some came from generous donations by philanthropists like Howard Tibbals and Howard Coville. But he says the Decade of Collecting didn't necessarily begin with an impulse.

It was just a natural step to get back into contemporary art.

“Every piece we acquire has to go through a pretty rigorous process,” says High. “We look at it from a conservation perspective: Is it going to cost us a lot of money to care for it? Is it in good enough condition to exhibit?

"It goes through me about whether this is something we want in our collection or not and then ultimately goes to our board, which has a state-legislated authority to accept or reject anything that we add in the collection.”

One purchase, a sculpture by artist Vanessa German, had been part of an exhibition at the Ringling. And another, a study of a painting by Joshua Reynolds, is an early work of a piece that is already in the Ringling Collection. The study had been in private hands for many years, says High, but the Ringling found it at auction in London and was able to acquire it.

"This is a proof of concept," he says of the study. "So this is what your portrait is going to be like only the portrait is going to be 10 times larger.

"You see all the figures are there, but it's just less defined."

 

A gigantic poster of Buffalo Bill donated by Howard Tibbals. (Courtesy photo)
A gigantic poster of Buffalo Bill donated by Howard Tibbals. (Courtesy photo)

Send in the clowns

You can't really have a Ringling exhibit without some circus artifacts.

The Decade of Collecting doesn't disappoint.

Tibbals, who died earlier this year, had a gigantic collection of circus posters, says High, perhaps the largest of any known.

And some of them defy description.

High motions to one that advertises the appearance of a flock of "giant racing pelicans."

"Who wouldn't want to go to see that?" he asks.

But there's another Tibbals contribution that really makes you wonder about its origins.

It looks like a giant circus poster  of Buffalo Bill that may have been sawed off a barn wall. 

And that's because that's exactly where Tibbals found it.

"It’s a 12-bent panel. That’s how they do a barn-sized poster," says High. "This is another one that Harold gave us.

"Literally he would find old barns with stuff still on them, he’d buy the wall and then get it removed and then restore it.

 

Are you not entertained?

You may have seen this image before. And you may have a lot of questions.

Peformance artist Li Wei is standing on his head, arms held straight down at his sides, perfectly balanced on top of the David statue in the Museum of Art’s courtyard.

Li Wei produced an incredible photo at The Ringling, but a crowd of onlookers wasn't impressed. (Courtesy photo)
Li Wei produced an incredible photo at The Ringling, but a crowd of onlookers wasn't impressed. (Courtesy photo)

How the heck did he get there?

And how did cameras capture the exact moment?

If you ask High, it’s actually a pretty funny story.

No, the artist did not shimmy into that position and hold himself there. He was hoisted into place.

“The crane was was totally out of the frame. So it’s way over here,” says High, gesturing just off camera.

Another thing you might not see is a somewhat disappointed crowd of onlookers.

How can that be?

Why are they disappointed watching something that yielded an incredible picture?

They were expecting a performance, not really performance art.

“It kind of backfired on us. We thought that people might be interested in coming in and watching,” says High, recalling the event. “So we announced that he was going to do this performance piece at the Ringling. We get all these people coming in and we set up some chairs for people if they wanted to watch. They were coming to see a performance. And so they just stood there.

“Every setup would take like two to three hours to get it right and get him up there and get it positioned just right. Get the camera right. So it was really boring 90% of the time, so they all kind of ended up leaving.”

 

 

author

Spencer Fordin

Spencer Fordin, the Observer's A+E editor, hails from New York and graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1999. Fordin previously worked as a sportswriter for MLB.com for 16 seasons and as a features reporter for The Cayman Compass on Grand Cayman.