For as long as I can remember, stepping anywhere on the premises of the Ringling estate has felt like setting foot on hallowed grounds. I have humbled myself at the feet of titanic 17th-century cartoons painted by Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens, and I have challenged Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s pastel portrait of Marie Antoinette to many a soul-searching staring contest. I seek meditative solace in Mable Ringling’s rose garden, and whenever the real world simply starts to bum me out, I retreat to the nostalgia and wonderment of childhood encapsulated in the circus museum.
During my most recent visits to the grounds, I began to notice something a little different about the museum I have frequented for more than a decade. I raised an eyebrow in May when a gallery attendant handed me an iPod loaded with hip hop music to accompany my exploration of the Beyond Bling exhibition. In November, Zimoun: Sculpting Sound tantalized my senses after a quiet and contemplative stroll through the museum’s rather somber permanent collection—a welcomed breath of fresh air.
During these experiences, I noted that the ground at Ringling was beginning to shift and quake beneath my feet—but I was assured there was no reason for alarm. That rumbling, I learned, was simply the museum rearranging the tectonic plates to make a little room for an even greater eruption of contemporary art, music and pop culture.
Ringling’s break with tradition in the form of edgy contemporary art exhibitions such as Beyond Bling and Zimoun is indicative of a greater effort by the museum to forge a connection with a new generation of art and culture junkies, while simultaneously diversifying and enhancing the sterling reputation its permanent collection has already garnered. However, Ringling has no intention of stopping with just a handful of new exhibitions.
On Thursday evening, approximately 400 people showed up for Ringling’s latest installment in the Art after 5 series Ringling Underground, which is a monthly event the museum describes as “a mix of live music, art and pop culture in a block party atmosphere.”
“The idea is to engage the college and young professional age demographic,” said the museum’s Assistant Director of Academic Affairs David Berry.
“They literally are the future members and patrons of this organization, and if Ringling is going to continue to have a meaningful relationship with Sarasota, we are going to have to connect with them. We want them to be a part of this institution as it moves forward,” he said.
Ringling Underground is a companion of sorts to Ringling by the Bay, another Art After 5 live music event that takes place monthly at the Ca’ d’Zan mansion.
“Ringling by the Bay pulls in a lot of visitors, but it draws from our current strengths—the 40-60 crowd, the Baby Boomers. It hasn’t really drawn in a younger audience, so we decided something new and different was required,” Berry said.
Rather than simply replicating Ringling by the Bay, Berry said the museum reached out to college students and young professionals to discover what would bring them out. Ringling teamed up with Sarasota’s popular booking and promoting agency run primarily by a group of 20-somethings, The Closet, to put together a band lineup consisting of local indie favorites, Sons of Hippies and Physical Plant, as well as St. Petersburg’s Red Feather.
“Driving down North 41, it doesn’t feel like you’re in a college town, even though it really is,” said Berry. “There is a large number of students in the community—Ringling, New College, SCF, USF—and the aim of Ringling Underground is for them to have an opportunity to take ownership of these events and the museum.”
“We have begun to explore new avenues of promotion to connect with a younger audience,” Berry explained. “Matt Decker’s poster style, for instance, looks more like a promo for a club event than for a museum event.”
Berry added that along with utilizing illustration work geared toward a younger audience, the museum made a concentrated effort to promote Ringling Underground on college campuses and in downtown hangouts while also placing a greater focus on using social media resources such as Facebook to spread the word.
Thursday’s inaugural Ringling Underground took place in the Ringling Museum courtyard, a location more conducive to the “block party atmosphere” the museum strove to emulate.
Not only does the courtyard provide a more hip party atmosphere than the slightly more buttoned-up Ca’ d’Zan mansion, but it gives attendees a better opportunity to engage with the museum’s collections, special exhibitions and the new Turrell Skyspace, which Berry says is “as significant to the contemporary art space as the Rubens’ [paintings] are to the original museum space.”
Although the event is geared toward attracting a younger crowd, Berry stressed that Ringling Underground, just like Ringling by the Bay and every exhibition that passes through the museum, welcomes every age.
“The exhibitions have really begun to engage a younger crowd, but they’ve actually been very popular with the older crowd as well. We hope to see the same for Ringling Underground.”
Of course the art on display from the museum’s extensive permanent collection, most of which consists of Renaissance and Baroque masterworks, is not going anywhere. Ringling Underground guests, like guests of every Art After 5 event, are encouraged to take advantage of the museum’s extended Thursday hours to explore the entire museum until 8:00pm.
I can personally attest that experiencing the work of rock stars from the 15th through 17th-century art world inside the gallery while a live band simultaneously jams out in the courtyard adds an entirely new level of “definitively awesome” to the whole experience.
If you missed Thursday’s event, worry not. Ringling Underground will take place on the first Thursday in March and April before taking a brief summer hiatus. It will resume from September through November. While Thursday’s event featured indie bands, March’s Ringling Underground will have a hip hop theme and April’s will feature electronic music.
And if you feel the ground quake beneath your feet, do not be alarmed. Even the statue of David in the courtyard can’t help but get his groove on during Ringling Underground—and once he gets the crowd moving with him, that place is off the Richter scale.