Ringling Underground Infuses Museum With Youthful Energy

When the sun sets over the courtyard of Sarasota’s John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, an eclectic and vibrant new culture emerges from the shadow cast by the museum’s iconic, towering bronze-cast statue of Michelangelo's David.

On the first Thursday of each month, February through April and August through October, an event called "Ringling Underground'' reimagines the museum’s serene courtyard and transforms it into a party atmosphere that features a pop culture-saturated array of live, danceable indie music and contemporary art installations that are geared toward engaging a fresh, youthful new generation of museum patrons.

Ringling Underground was developed as an extension of the museum's "Art After 5'' series, a program initiated in 2011 to attract young professionals to the museum. Each Thursday, the Ringling permanent collection and special exhibition galleries extend  hours into the evening and the museum features discounted admission prices and cocktails in the courtyard, making the museum an accessible location for the young professional crowd to wind down from the business day.

The result is bigger, louder and wilder by converting the courtyard into a hip block party that showcases creative talent while cultivating awareness and enthusiasm for the Ringling Museum and its collections -- particularly among its target audience, the college student and young professional crowd.

"Sarasota is a hub for higher education -- New College is the state honors college of Florida and there’s Ringling College of Art and Design, one of the nation’s top schools for the arts, and the state schools -- but we struggle to keep our graduates here,'' says David Berry, Ringling Museum's assistant director for academic affairs.

"To keep young people here, we need to provide more than jobs. People need opportunities outside of work, be they social or otherwise, to keep them engaged with a community. It's our goal to enrich the quality of their experience in Sarasota as a student and to establish a relationship that adds value -- not just to the museum itself, but to Sarasota and the greater Gulf coast as a place to stay and live,'' he adds.

Noting a continued lack of museum engagement with the 20- to 30-something crowd following the introduction of Art After 5, Ringling enlisted the assistance of members of its target demographic, including young professionals Jen Nugent, Ringling College graduate and local artist; Shannon Fortner, Harvey Milk Festival founder and musician;  and Shakira Refos, founder of Take Over Youth Culture Festival. Nugent coordinates the visual art, Fortner books the bands and Refos brings the event together as the official Ringling Underground emcee. All three women are under the age of 35.

"The previous programming didn't appeal, but what sets Ringling Underground apart is that young people are the ones who are shaping the program and using it as an outlet to express their creativity. It provides a sense of ownership and allows them to make a connection that will encourage a lasting relationship with the museum,'' Berry said.

As the event's exhibition coordinator, Nugent says that she views Ringling Underground as a unique opportunity for emerging artists under 40 to expose the public to their work.

"I tend to look for recent grads or artists who are still in school, as well as self-taught artists, from the 18-40 age range. There aren't very many opportunities for artists from that demographic to get exposure when they are first emerging,'' Nugent said.

''The Ringling Museum curators are able to bring in these amazing, incredible artists from all over the world for the special exhibitions, but the museum rarely shows regional or local artists. At Ringling Underground, you get a sense of what people are doing on a local level. You get exposed to these less established artists who are doing really interesting things that you just don’t see every day,'' Nugent adds.

Art For All Your Senses

Much of the art featured at Ringling Underground has an interactive aspect that melds seamlessly into the event’s party atmosphere, including free-standing walk-around installations and large digital projections, as well as performance artists engaging the crowd through their acts.

"It's tricky because we have to find artists who don’t need a wall or light -- there are restrictions on hanging anything on the walls because the building is historic -- but as a result, we end up with artists submitting some very different, interactive work. It's fun to see how people react,'' Nugent says.

The event also features live music from both local and national acts, accompanied by a cash bar with beer, wine and food. Although the permanent museum collection and special exhibitions close when the event kicks off at 8 pm, guests are encouraged to visit the museum's James Turrell Skyspace, a meditative LED-lit room with an aperture in the ceiling that allows a view of the night sky -- the perfect getaway between sets as Ringling Underground music performers change out their gear on the stage beneath the statue of David.

"The live music is the key,'' says Christina Fraser, Ringling public functions coordinator. "People are coming to the museum to see a band or artist that’s performing at Ringling Underground and through that, they’re being exposed to the museum and establishing a connection. It's great to see young people openly discussing the art in the galleries during the events. It's particularly gratifying to see someone at Ringling Underground one night, and then recognize them in the museum the next day.''

The initial Ringling Underground in February 2012, kept the music local, featuring Sarasota-based psychedelic rock band Sons of Hippies, New College-led folk-rock group Physical Plant and St. Petersburg psychedelic-folk outfit RedFeather. It has since evolved to feature up-and-coming national acts like Philadelphia-based dream pop outfit, Vacationer, who played for a crowd of approximately 500 people at Ringling Underground in October 2012.

The March 2013 event featured Sarasota indie pop artists Cassolette, St. Petersburg folk rockers Alexander and the Grapes and Jacksonville psychedelic electro-pop outfit Sunbears. Artists Joni Younkins-Herzog, Gigi Lage, Michelle Fader and Cecilia Lueza showed their work at the event, and Sarasota’s Clothesline Creative was on site to screen print custom Ringling Underground tees.

Shaping What's Next

According to Fraser, Ringling Underground currently relies partially on funding from outside sources to cover the approximately $1,700 cost of each event. She is optimistic that Ringling Underground will develop into a self-sustaining program with a greater breadth of interactive activities.

"It is still a work in progress as we look for new ways to make the event more interesting and look to involve more of our community,'' Fraser says. She notes that of the more than 400 attendees at the March event, several said they were first-time attendees who plan to return.

"At one point we had 44 people in the Herb Ritts exhibition and the galleries were still busy at closing. It was a great night and think we will keep growing. In a survey conducted that evening, we found quite a few people were first time visitors to the museum and heard about Underground from friends. We love that,'' Fraser says.

Van Jazmin, a senior in the Ringling College illustration program and Sarasota-based young professional, says that Ringling Underground has prompted him to view the museum in a new light.

"Ringling Underground is a special privilege that we have living in this region. It's rare that an institution as regal and acclaimed as the museum would embrace the local music and art scene,'' Jazmin says.

"It engages the younger demographic with the museum and it caters to our schedule. I live behind the museum and rarely find the time to go except during the Ringling Underground events. When I see the statue of David, Sarasota's icon, lit up with colored lasers and lights, I can't help but smile. It's a truly unique happening,'' he adds.

As the event continues striving to bridge the cultural disconnect that exists between Sarasota's most iconic arts institution and its latest generation of patrons and influencers, Ringling Underground succeeds in creating common ground for supporters of all ages -- right on the grounds of its palatial courtyard.

"I firmly believe this is the future of this organization,'' Fraser says. The people who are attending Ringling Underground are the demographic that make up the museum’s future -- our patrons and members; our museum staff -- and, any institution that chooses to ignore that demographic does so at their own peril. The young people in this community are making an impact now, and the museum must earn its relationship with them. Ringling Underground is just the first step in earning that relationship.''

The next Ringling Underground event takes place on April 4 from 8-11 pm, featuring music from Sarasota's Brazos the Rat, Orlando-based Saskatchewan and Washington D.C. quartet Young Rapids. Ringling Underground tickets are free to college students with ID, $10 for adults, $5 for kids and teens 6-17 and free for children under 6.

Jessi Smith, a native Floridian, is a freelance writer who lives and works in downtown Sarasota. When she isn't writing about local arts and culture, she can generally be found practicing yoga or drinking craft beers and talking about her magnificent cat. Jessi received her bachelor's degree in art history from Florida International University and, predictably, perpetually smells of patchouli.. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

 Jessi Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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