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This weekend the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art goes golden.

It has been 50 years since the Sarasota showplace first opened its doors to the public as Florida's official state museum of art. Beginning with Saturday's gala Governor's Ball ($250 per person), followed by next Saturday's public fest (free) and continuing throughout the year, the museum is celebrating its half century legacy.

The museum is older than that, older, in fact, than any other art museum in Florida. It was built by John Ringling, last survivor of the Ringling Brothers of circus fame, to house his collection of baroque art, and to bring culture to residents and visitors of the state.

The celebration re-examines the man whose name is inextricably tied not only to the museum and the circus, but to Sarasota as well. Through a yearlong series of exhibits, programs and publications under the umbrella title, "John Ringling: Dreamer _ Builder _ Collector," viewers will gain an idea of the chronology in which the art collection and the museum came to be, as well as Ringling's other dreams for the city.

It began more than 70 years ago. Florida was enjoying a land boom, and Ringling had made a fortune developing Sarasota, including the islands of Bird Key, Coon, Otter, St. Armands and a few miles of Longboat Key.

He invested in something else, too: art. In 1925 he announced his intention to build an art museum. At the time, there was no major museum for the public in the Southeastern United States.

And for good reason. Air conditioning was virtually unknown. With its long, hot and muggy summers, Florida was hardly the climate for precious artworks that needed a temperature-controlled environment.

The collection of 625 paintings consisted primarily of baroque art works acquired by Ringling and his wife, Mable. Art of the baroque period, roughly 1600 to 1750, is characterized by heavy ornamentation, illusion and theatricality. These qualities were out of synch with the streamlined mode of the Roaring Twenties.

Still, Ringling found himself attracted to it, and was able to buy low.

Not all his purchases were good buys. His great-niece, Pat Ringling Buck, who lives in Sarasota, says, "Some of them were not terribly choice. I would say, at the outside, two-thirds are exhibitable."

The centerpieces of the collection are five works by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Called "cartoons" because they are preliminary designs for tapestries, they are actually full-scale, detailed paintings. Rubens' assistants executed the tapestries in his atelier, or studio. It is the cartoons, though, that are the expression of the artist's creativity.

Other baroque masters represented in the collection are Van Dyck, Velazquez, Hals, Poussin, Veronese and Tiepolo.

Ringling chose architect John H. Phillips to design a building that would enhance the baroque collection. The result, in Renaissance and baroque Italianate style, is a stately and elegant presence at the end of a broad road off US 41. From the entry lobby, the visitor looks out on a formal sculpture garden to a 17-foot replica of Michelangelo's statue, David. Beyond it is Sarasota Bay.

For the galleries where the Rubens cartoons would hang, Phillips designed 40-foot-high walls topped by a dramatic clerestory. Not only did they act as a perfect visual setting for the masterworks, they provided some protection against the heat.

In all, the museum had 21 galleries. The West Galleries, used for temporary exhibits, were added later.

Ringling built his residence, Ca d'Zan ("House of John"), a 30-room Venetian-style mansion, on the grounds from 1924 to 1926. It is currently undergoing renovation but is open to the public.

Together, the museum and home cost $5-million _ a high price at the time.

The Ringlings saw the museum as a memorial to themselves, as a cultural mecca in the South, and as an adjunct for a school of art. They also hoped the museum would draw established artists to Sarasota.

In 1927 Ringling established Sarasota as the circus' winter home. Building its headquarters was a spur to the Florida economy following a real estate bust in 1926.

In 1928 Art Digest called the museum the "first great museum in the South," in spite of the fact it was not yet open.

Mable Ringling died in June 1929, and the stock market plummeted in October, wiping out most of Ringling's holdings. He lost control of the circus. His own health began to fail. The museum finally opened for one day, March 31, 1930, then for a week in March 1931. On October 2, 1931, with the governor and 2,000 people present, the museum was dedicated, simultaneously with the Ringling School of Art and Design nearby. Ringling was instrumental in founding the school, which today offers college art degrees.

The museum was open full time from January, 1932, until Ringling's death in 1936. His will left the museum complex, his home and his art to the state of Florida, but his estate was tied up for years by haggling relatives, creditors and the IRS. Though he died with only $311 in his bank account, his estate, including the art collection, was valued at $23.5-million.

During that time the museum remained closed. The art went into storage, where it suffered considerable deterioration.

It wasn't until 1946 that the state of Florida agreed to accept Ringling's legacy, which included the obligation of operating the museum as a public institution. It opened to the public permanently in 1947.

Air-conditioning finally came to the museum in the mid-1950s, but at a price to the display. The high walls of the Rubens Gallery were cut off at 20 feet by a plain, dropped ceiling to conceal the air-conditioning ducts.

The museum observed a previous golden anniversary in 1981, marking 50 years since the museum first opened. It celebrated with special exhibits and showed off its recent purchase of a fifth Rubens cartoon.

Today the Ringling's 31-acre complex includes, in addition to the museum and Ca d'Zan:

the Historic Asolo Theater, at the northwest corner of the museum, housing an actual 18th century opera house interior imported from Italy,

the Circus Museum, originally the garage, converted in 1948,

three gift shops, a rose garden and the Banyan Cafe.

Adjacent to the grounds are the New College campus of the University of South Florida and the Asolo Center for the Performing Arts and FSU/Asolo Conservatory, a total of 66 acres of state-owned cultural and educational endeavor.

Today the Ringling collection has grown to more than 10,000 works of art, including more than 1,000 paintings, not only in baroque art, but in other areas of the Western tradition. It has a sizable and significant contemporary collection.

A 10-year, $18.5-million renovation completed in 1991 brought a technologically sophisticated climate control system that permitted removal of the dropped ceiling and the restoration of Phillips' original grandeur.

At a glance

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Where: 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota (off U.S. 41)

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's days

Cost: $8.50 adults; $7.50 seniors; free for Florida students and teachers (with ID) and children 12 and under. Admission includes entire complex; art museum only is free on Saturday (except during annual Medieval Fair)

Docent tours available, free with museum admission

Information: Call (941) 359-5700

Online information: http://www.ringling .org/ed/educat.htm

Publication: John Ringling: Dreamer _ Builder _ Collector, a collection of illustrated essays, $29.95 in Ringling Museum gift shops and Sarasota bookstores.

Special exhibits

Through Dec. 28: Dutch Baroque Portraiture, Gallery 11; works purchased by Ringling.

Sunday through Dec. 28: John Ringling as Collector, West Galleries; insights into how Ringling acquired his collection of Old Masters.

Feb. 1-Dec. 28: The Astor Rooms _ Nineteenth Century Beaux Arts Style, Galleries 19 and 20.

March 29-Dec. 28: Peter Paul Rubens and the Traditions of Tapestries, Galleries 1 and 2.

April 27-August 31: John Ringling Collects Painting and Sculpture, West Galleries 3 and 4.

May 31-Dec. 28: Alexander Tapestry Series, Gallery 21.

Sept. 27-Dec. 28: John Ringling Collects Gavet, Cypriote and Decorative Arts, West Galleries 3 and 4.

Special events

(Partial listing. Call (941) 351-1660 for recorded announcement of others throughout the year):

Saturday _ Governor's Ball, Ringling Museum of Art; reservation information: (941) 359-5837.

Sunday _ "John Ringling: Dreamer _ Builder _ Collector," public opening.

Jan. 23, 2 p.m. _ "John Ringling: Dreamer _ Builder _ Collector," lecture by project coordinator Aaron DeGroft, Historic Asolo Theater; suggested donation $4 non-members.

Jan. 25, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. _ Community Open House, first of a series of celebrations for Florida residents and visitors. Musicians and entertainers, gallery talks, docents in costume giving tours, family activities in galleries. Free; charge for food.

Feb. 8 and 22, 1-2:30 p.m. _ John Ringling Family Gallery Day, West Galleries and Historic Asolo Theater. Suggested donation $4 non-members.