Check out Ringling Museum for free on Museum Day

For my money, the best deal around on Saturday's Smithsonian national Museum Day is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. Except I don't need any money since it's free!

Once a year only, the four venues — the art museum, the historic mansion Ca d'Zan, the Tibbals Learning Center and the Circus Museum — are all without charge. (Mondays are always free for the art museum only.) That's a savings of up to $25 per person.

It's an even better deal because Saturday is the opening of the $7.5 million wing at the Tibbals Learning Center. It adds about 12,000 square feet to the center, where Howard Tibbals' enchanting replica of a 1930s circus is on display along with costumes and posters. The addition to it is designed as an interactive experience with three rings spotlighting famous big top performers from the past. It also houses two enormous, refurbished circus wagons, one for a calliope and the other, the famous Five Graces Wagon, a gilded behemoth that led the parade into town when the circus arrived and was drawn by 20 matched black horses.

The Ringling experience is a full day, packed with variety.

The original Circus Museum still has a wonderful collection of more circus wagons, plus the restored private railroad car used by circus impresario John Ringling and his wife, Mabel, when they traveled. And they traveled in style. The 79-foot car, built in 1905, had an interior clad in mahogany and stained glass, capable of accommodating nine passengers, plus a butler and chef.

The couple also lived in style. They built a Venetian palazzo on Sarasota Bay, near the museum, that underwent an extensive renovation several years ago. They stocked their museum with an impressive collection of Baroque art, and John Ringling left it all — museum, mansion and 66 acres — to the state when he died in 1936.

Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

Check out Ringling Museum for free on Museum Day 09/21/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 21, 2011 12:35pm]

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