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FSU’s Role in the History of the Ringling Museum

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at FSU chapter.

Growing up with family in Sarasota, I was a frequent visitor to The Ringling Museum. It wasn’t until after my FSU acceptance that I learned about Florida State’s involvement with this unique museum. Let’s step back in time and see how the Seminoles made their mark on Sarasota.

the beginning

The story begins in 1911, when John Ringling and his wife Mable bought a waterfront property in Sarasota, Florida for the winter months. By this time, John was already well-known for his and his brothers’ wildly successful circus empire. With this new winter home, John would bring his circus crew to Florida every winter to perform there. John was the most financially successful of the five Ringling brothers, allowing for the construction of his mansion, The Ca’d’Zan (or “House of John” in Italian). A few years later, the couple decided to build an art museum that would serve as their legacy to leave behind to the people of Florida.  

John passed in 1936, following the Great Depression in 1929, which left the property looking bleak. The estate was falling apart, and everything needed repairing. Luckily, donors and dedicated staff helped keep things afloat. In 1948, The Ringling’s first director opened a circus museum dedicated to John Ringling, his brothers, and the circus performers who called Sarasota their winter home. In 1952, the Historic Asolo Theater, originally built in 1798 in Asolo, Italy, was transported and rebuilt on the estate.  

FSU Steps In

Florida State University was granted authority over the museum in 2000 after years of politicians debating between the University of South Florida and Florida State. This achievement could be attributed to a state senator who graduated from FSU in 1971. While USF was much closer in proximity, their proposal made it obvious the university was lacking leadership skills. With FSU came extreme funding and refurbishment. Many additions were constructed, and the Ca’d’Zan underwent a $15 million restoration.  

FSU’s students can also benefit from The Ringling. After taking the proper prerequisites, those interested in museum-related careers can apply to spend a year studying there. This opportunity offers unique insight and a hands-on experience that is hard to come by at most universities. These students spend weeks in each museum department and learn about all aspects of the full operation. The Ringling is one of the largest and most prestigious university arts complexes in the world, so it’s quite impressive that Florida State plays such a significant role.  

The Estate

Today, the grounds occupy 66 acres. While walking the estate, you’ll be immersed in the Bayfront Gardens, which include ancient statues, ponds, citrus and magnolia trees, and even a rose garden. The most popular attractions mentioned earlier are detailed below.  

The Circus Museum

While not directly related, it makes sense that FSU would run The Ringling, given our circus history. The Circus Museum is filled with historical artifacts, including a 19th-century railcar called The Wisconsin that includes bedrooms, dining, bathrooms, and more. Here is also where you can learn more about the Ringling family and their circus business that traveled the country.  

The Museum of Art

For those into a more traditional museum experience, the Museum of Art is the place for you. This is where you’ll get your Pinterest-worthy shots while observing over 30 galleries and exhibitions. With thousands of pieces of European art, medieval period pieces, and historical artifacts from all over the world, there’s something for everyone.  

The Historic Asolo Theater

This three-tiered theater runs plays, musicals, shows, and more year-round. Also, FSU has a program in which 12 students are chosen each year to study and obtain professional production experience. Students from this program have even appeared on Broadway!  

The Ca’d’Zan

Finally, the most anticipated stop for many is the Ca’d’Zan. Spanning over 36,000 square feet, this waterfront mansion includes 56 rooms along with five guest suites, a ballroom, a service wing, and more. The Mediterranean architecture is something you won’t want to miss. With stained glass windows and a bayside terrace, this sight is breathtaking.   

The best part? FSU students get in completely free; all you have to do is bring your school ID. So, the next time you’re in the area, make sure to check it out. I promise you won’t regret it. 

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Lorelei is a staff writer for Her Campus FSU and a second-year Biology major. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting, reading, obsessing over Taylor Swift, traveling, and rewatching Glee for the hundredth time.