Tuesday, January 05, 2010

From out of the Past, a Tale of Two Circus Museums: The Rape of an Estate

Part 2 in a Series:
Tibbals versus Ringling

Two Exhibitions Clash as Irreconcilable Differences Only Grow Worse; It's Time for Divorce

If you were to build a circus museum, would anybody come? Surely a handful of die-hard fans. Possibly a horde of curiosity seekers. How many of them would stay? Return? Bottom line, would you make any money?

Back in 1948, Sarasota circus fan John L. Sullivan discovered on the grounds of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, then owned and run by the State of Florida, a number of old circus wagons and equipment stored in various garages. He thought — why not swing open the doors and offer the public a circus museum? Great idea, agreed museum director A. Everett Austin, himself a magician who was then actively seeking new revenue streams for the struggling art galleries. Thus was born the first circus museum of its kind. And thus would emerge a never-ending saga pitting an art museum against a circus community.

Eventually, Sullivan’s garage exhibits would occupy a trio of buildings set discretely back at the far end of the grounds, and they would realize rare artistic distinction when, in 1957, a one-time Ringling clown and circus press agent, Mel C. Miller, Jr. joined on as a volunteer. In four years, Miller was promoted to full-time curator, and what an inspired mark he made on how its exhibits came to be arranged. Indeed, on how magical we can be made to feel at a circus. Under Miller’s deft direction, the creme de la destination were a dozen old Ringling wagons from the tent show era, arranged under a simulated twilight sky, complete with the respective tools and props each had carried, one for blacksmiths, another for costumes, and so. Called the Backyard Scene, it offered the patron an utterly enchanting stroll into the almost mystical world of that long-gone tented city that moved by night. I snuk over a rope once to sit in a canvas chair amidst some Miles White costumes. In the hazy background, a recording of the Merle Evans band playing the 1955 score made my fantasy complete. Historical heaven I had reached that day ...

After 15 years, the exhibit mysteriously vanished into a night of its own. The building was closed down, ostensibly for renovation, but it never reopened.

There was one problem with that idyllic setting: This “circus” museum never should have been built, not in the terse words of Henry Ringling North spoken to me, nor in the historical accounts of circus author Gene Plowden and wagon restoration man Joe McKennon, the latter a volunteer who spent thousands of hours and gave thousands of dollars helping to do what he said never should have been done. It was this tough old carnie and circus midway man who collaborated with Mel Miller on the Back Yard Scene. He who with his knowledge of sawdust and spangles history helped Miller design what I consider, artistically speaking, by far the best American circus museum — so far. Miller’s focus was essentially on the greatness that was Ringling. But that discriminating focus has been lost and squandered away in the questionable present tense. Gone with the wind of bureaucratic change, of fund raising and job-preservation, and of the necessity to increase patronage to an art museum that has never come close through admissions alone to paying for itself.

How did this all come about? Circus king John Ringling of the Ringling brothers dynasty had spent years touring museums abroad with his wife Mable, purchasing and sending back shiploads of art work to his palatial residence, Ca d’Zan. Over six hundred paintings, in fact. His impressive collection of Rubens alone gave his galleries a certain respect in art circles. In recent years, the museum was judged “the largest art museum south of Washington, DC,” by the Chicago Tribune, noting that it had been “authoritatively called ‘the most important collection of Italian baroque art, and Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens in the United States.’” That’s no small praise.

In his will, Ringling stipulated that all of his holdings were to be “joined to and become part of ‘The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art..” He also mandated that “no change by sale, trade or other means shall be made in any of the paintings or objects of art which may form a part of said museum at the time of my death,” and he allowed for funds raised from the sale of one half of his estate to be used “for the purpose of adding to, embellishing or increasing the contents of said museum.”

Nowhere in Ringling’s final will and testament is there a single word about setting up any kind of a circus exhibit anywhere on the premises. In fact, the word “circus” does not appear in it at all. In Ringling’s outlandishly flamboyant bayside residence, Ca d'Zan – a grandiose mishmash of decorative styles — you might find a photo or two of a circus star and maybe a note bearing Ringling letterhead on a small desk in the ante room near John Ringling’s marble bathroom. That’s it.

In his crudely written though generally reliable pamphlet, Rape of an Estate, the chronically bitter Joe McKennon, whose self-published prose amounts to a rant against alleged widespread abuse and misuse committed by the credentialed class who ran and plundered the art museums and the lovely grounds in general, McKennon concedes, despite himself being one of many individuals who in essence dishonored John Ringling’s will by helping build up the circus exhibits, “Most of us have always been sure that John would not approve of having this on the grounds. We all are sure that Mable would have objected.”

Nonetheless, once the museum, residence and grounds passed into the hands of the State of Florida on February 9, 1946, a gallery of famed Rubens paintings would soon have to compete with irresistibly colorful old circus wagons, ring curbs, photographs and gaudy posers, thanks to John Sullivan’s discovery and displays. How much more of a crowd draw, ironically, they proved to be to a typical visitor entering the grounds with the word “Ringling” ringing in his expectant mind.

Within a few years, Sullivan was up the road operating his own short-lived Circus Hall of Fame, featuring, if we are to believe McKennon, some stuff taken from his last job. And the story may have been quite different had Mel Miller not resigned in 1968, evidently to become the inaugural dean of the new Ringling Bros. Clown College established by Irvin Feld.

Several writers and participants have fully acknowledged, in effect concurring with what Henry North told me, that the circus unit should never have happened. In Rape, McKennon writes, “Due to the term’s of John Ringling’s will, neither Mel Miller or Joe McKennon ever dared hope that they would ever be allowed to complete the ambitious circus museum that they had envisioned.”

Well, give time a chance. Current developments favoring yet a new expansion of the Ringling diaspora onto the grounds may bring about what Miller and McKennon envisioned. Or something close.

When they shut down the Backyard Scene, possibly the board was then grappling with a most unpleasant set of economic realities, which returns us to my lead sentence. Can a circus museum anywhere come close to paying for itself in ticket sales alone? Under new leadership from Florida State University, which was handed control of the Ringling museums back in 2000, a new band of educators and bureaucrats are plundering forward to give greater attention to the source of John Ringling’s millions, at the same time offering a set of contorted reasons why Mr. Ringling would have kept any evidence of how he made his millions off the pristine premises. In the words of current director John Weternell, quoted on the American Association of Museum’s website, “One would never, in that era, display the origins of their wealth. It was simply not something one would do, any more than Frick would build a tribute to steel manufacturing next to his museum. It was a later sensibility that brought the circus” to the estate. Added Deborah Walk, described in the article as a “Tibbals curator and Ringling archivist,” “to him, the circus was alive, not something to memorialize.” So we are to believe, then, that John Ringling feigned the mock modesty of a proper industrialist of the time. Really?

Given the big top tycoon's monumental ego and the natural selling power of a circus exhibit in any form (as opposed to say, a steel plant demonstration), I would readily defer to what others have said and written, including even those who worked at the circus museum.

Today, the latest land grabbers on the grounds and running are the unlikely duo, and dynamic they are, of Ms. Walk and circus model builder Howard Tibbals. The later force, because he happens to be a millionaire many times over and apparently has an ego to match, has tossed so far at least several million onto Walk’s desk, in return for which, not only did he get to install his formidable model circus on the top floor of a new building he funded, but he also got a room-size display dedicated to honoring him and his craft. The eye-popping 3/4 inch scale Howard Bros Circus is said to recreate the huge Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey big top world of the 1920s, cast in perpetuity in a hermetically sealed display case. It’s a minor wonder to behold, albeit a little too spanking fresh and new to represent the reality of a mammoth traveling tent show. The older model circus display in the older midway building still speaks more realistically to my heart. I would love to know how circus model builders rate the Tibbals layout.

Yet another codified tribute to philanthropist Tibbals is the repetitions appearance of his name across virtually all of the circus museum photographs now going out for publication. The credit lines now read: John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Tibbals Digital Collection.”

And already, an addition to the Tibbals tower is in the works, slated to open in 2012. According to promotional literature, this will include a real circus ring in which real circus performers will perform. So the museum appears to be taking the commercial road taken by Baraboo.

From Mel Miller to Deborah Walk, where are we now? I visited the new Tibbals Leaning Center shortly after it opened and was enthralled by the model circus display, especially by the train unloading part of it. And then I began to see the whole thing as more of a toy than a realistic recreation to scale. Lovely white tents. Pure green grass. Spec floats not out of the 1920s but from the 1951 show. The building itself needs more inside it. A time line of circus history is particularly fine. But a pandering video featuring promo clips from Cirque du Soleil shows seems oddly, glaringly incongruous with the museum’s stated goals to celebrate "the American circus, its history and unique relationship to Sarasota." Somebody needs to tell somebody in the office that Cirque is French, just as Moscow is Russian. This reconfigured museum now in transition does not come close to what Mel Miller gave us, but give them time and money, both of which they have. As for what they might be leaving behind in their construction zeal, the old midway hall when I saw it was a disappointing and rather disorienting ramble of individual exhibitions clumsily joined.

What is most astonishing about the new Tibbals-funded monument to Mr. Tibbals is its close proximity to the new entrance, bookstore and visitors reception area; indeed, if you move up a certain path, it is the first thing you will come upon. When it opened, the expected rush of traffic was hardly a rush, according to a rather subdued account given to me by an assistant curator. But if they do bring a real live circus onto the premises, perhaps a few more hundred souls will start showing up, same as what happenes during the summer months in Baraboo. A few hundred is better than a few dozen, right?

I have in hand a flier similar in size and color to what you will find on a table in hotel reception areas where local attractions compete for your leisure dollar. Seen here to your right, notice the blaring headline, CELEBRATE CIRCUS! Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida. All of which helps crystallize my final conclusion: The spirit and letter of John Ringling’s will continues to be brazenly dishonored. If the interlopers and opportunists responsible for all the meddling possessed a shred of redemptive integrity, here is what they could and should do: Separate their good-to-mediocre work from the art museums, and make the former its own autonomous entity with a separate admission. With no passage between the two. In other words, build a fence between the two, period. This would allow the art museum that John Ringling built and so loved and the lovely surrounding grounds to be whole again. And this would grant the circus museum staff the total freedom to literally take off. Ms. Walk could solicit more nibbles from Tibbals, and Mr. Tibbals could walk the walk.

Face it: These two totally distinct subject matters just do not go together. Never have and never will. Personally, I like them both, but I do not relish the idea of moving back and forth between two such disparate worlds during a single visit or across a shared setting.

When John Ringling opened his art museum (that’s spelled A-R-T), along with the John and Mable Ringling School of Art and Junior College (about a mile away) on October 1, 1931, according to Plowden’s book, Those Amazing Ringlings and Their Circus, it galled him to no end that too many visitors came looking for the wrong thing, invariably asking “Where are the animals?”

To the superintendent one night, Mr. John complained, “By God, you must be gettin’ a lot of ignorant folks in here. Imagine expectin’ to find circus animals in an art museum, just because it bears the name ‘Ringling.”

Today, such ignorant folk would have no such problem, for shortly upon entering, there to their right up a little ways is the Tibbals Learning Center. Circus all the way! Just what you came for, right? Oh, did I hear somebody say they wanted to see paintings? Step on ahead, folks, you’ll find ‘em up the road! ...

Next Stop: Baraboo Revisited



Barry said...

A very timely piece given this blurb from the Bradenton newspaper that came across my desk today:

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art’s Circus Museum will be expanding this year, offering an additional 24,475 square foot of circus history to fill its Tibbals Learning Center.

Construction begins this month, though a date for a groundbreaking ceremony has not been set yet, said Erica Bacon, the museum’s program assistant.

The Lakewood Ranch-based Willis A. Smith Construction will tackle the $7.5 million project. The expansion calls for 12,000 square feet of interactive exhibition space to showcase extensive circus history downstairs. The rest of the space will be used for upstairs storage and for the establishment of the Tibbals Center for the Study of the American Circus. The program will allow for research by scholars and curators.

Estimated expansion completion is September 2011.

Here is the link to the full article: http://www.bradenton.com/news/local/lakewood_ranch_herald/story/1950209.html

Showbiz David said...

Thanks, Barry.

Anonymous said...

Opening a CIRCUS museum in this millenium? You must be joking. I agree with your prediction that the best it can hope for is to attract some geriatric circus fans. Has anyone seen ANY evidence that the citizens are clamouring to know more about the past of a business they care little about in the present.
Prior to the 80's, there were numerous specials and/or weekly circus shows on TV, "Ringling's opening in St Pete was an annual special, as was the Monte Carlo Festival, Bert Park's circus show, Circus of the Stars (I know, I know, much reviled by performers) every show from the 'Mod Squad' to 'The Lucy Show' had circus themed episodes. Kids toys had circus themes, books were written and big budget movies were made with the circus as a center piece. None of that exists now - none of it. Interest in the circus has never been less. And, here come a new bazillion dollar venture. Unbelievable. Perhaps they could include a wing devoted to the numerous vaudville fans, or perhaps a burlesque annex, or better yet, a buggy whip museum. That should bring 'em in.
I have to wonder, once our aged crop of memerobilia collectors have passed, will a circus poster from the old Sells show have any value at all on Ebay? Doubt it.

Showbiz David said...

a "buggy whip museum," HaHaHa! Wish you have given us your name.

EnquiringMinds said...

No kidding, just last Friday the water cooler discussion at the office was all about how those circus folks lived, what was it like in the backyard of the old Ringling show, and who had the best tiger act of all time.....Not!

Showbiz David said...

come to think of it, i never discuss circus with my non-circus friends, though we talk about tv and movies, tiger and leno and steroid sports, et all.

Jan Powell said...

I do find it discombobulating to try to take in the Art Museum & Ca'd'Zan and the Circus Museum all in one day. There is a need to separate the two experiences. I also feel that the Tibbals circus is not a patch on the older toy circus which is displayed in pieces. I saw that old animated circus exhibit back in the '50's in Raleigh, NC and it never left my mind. Imagine my surprise to find it in Sarasota after all these years. I'm glad somebody saved it but sorry it's in pieces and not the centerpiece that it should be. It was spectacular and really conveyed that circus to my ten year old self at the time.

Anonymous said...

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art tried to get all copies it could of Joe McKennon's self-published "Rape of an Estate" and it keeps them underlock in the Circus Musuem in an archive room. The public is not allowed in this room. It is only entered by security when they are making 2nd/3rd shift patrol rounds and by circus musuem employees. I don't know how many copies are there, but it was several stacks the last time I was there. The Musuem felt so threatened by its report of widespread abuse and misuse, that it tried its best to make it disappear by locking away.