Collegiate Gothic Meets Smart Contemporary 
The Grand Design of the Sarasota Museuof Art

By Ryan G. Van Cleave

Ask anyone to think of a museum and they probably envision long corridors and big rooms filled with all types of art. They likely don’t even give a thought to the building housing that art. But a museum of modern art, that often experimental, shocking, challenging, and empowering tradition of art ranging from the late 1800s to roughly the 1970s? The building itself is often an integral part of the art experience. For example, consider the Akron Art Museum where a recent soaring glass and steel structure added in 2007 to the late nineteenth-century brick and limestone building makes it look as if an airplane crashed into the backside. That’s exactly part of the fun and part of what makes Akron’s museum world-renowned for its conversation-starting architecture. SMOA looks to be no less effective in its architectural design.

After a design competition that was judged by a Ringling College of Art + Design student, members of the public, and museum and art professionals, the winning concept presented by the Sarasota architectural firm ADP Group that wowed them all might best be called a sandwich. The second floor of this three-floor building is where the modern and contemporary art will reside. The other two floors which sandwich the exhibitions and collections will be art studios and other education spaces to teach adults and children from the community. The effect of this unusual layout is that someone working to learn watercolor on the third floor can look through one of the many glass walls or off one of the many bridges and see professional art displayed on the second floor. And museum visitors enjoying art on the second floor can peer down to the classes being held on the first floor and witness actual art being created. Larry Thompson, President of the Ringling College of Art + Design (SMOA became a division of the college in 2005), says “the brilliance of the design is for the visitors to not only experience the art by seeing it in the museum but to also experience the creation of art itself.” This connection between process and product is key to the joint mission of SMOA to be both an exhibition space and a robust learning center.

If you walk down Tamiami Trail and look at the old Sarasota High School building that will soon become SMOA, one thing stands out — the red brick exterior and Collegiate-Gothic style that was revolutionary and exciting for the 1920s, but today, feels pretty old world. (It was designed by the prominent Florida architect M. Leo Elliott, who also designed Bay Haven, Southside, and Osprey elementary schools.) If you could see inside those big red walls, you’d find terrazzo floors and vaulted ceilings that are so different than what schools offer today.

Some people might wonder why a museum featuring modern and contemporary art should be housed in such a decidedly old building — isn’t it inappropriate, or at least an odd mix? They might wonder. Why not knock it flat and start anew with a cutting-edge structure that’s innovative and more like the exciting art housed inside? 

President Thompson ran up against this kind of thinking back when he was CEO and director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “People thought we couldn’t put rock and roll in a museum, too,” President Thompson says about the world-class tourist attraction designed by architect I.M. Pei in Cleveland’s redeveloped North Coast Harbor on the shore of Lake Erie. He adds, “The way I tend to see it is that putting modern/contemporary art in a historic structure reminds the visitor that all art — especially modern/contemporary art — has a historical context as it itself creates history for the future.” And for those who love historic architectural elements, don’t worry — the beautiful vaulted ceilings and terrazzo floors will be preserved along with the building’s exterior. You’ll be able to enjoy some of that stunning interior from the rear of the building, too, thanks to a minimalist glass structure that will allow visibility from the outside to all three floors and an open system of stairs and elevators.

As with many design projects today, sustainability and environmental concerns are crucial. President Thompson applauds this goal, saying, “There is no better act of sustainability than reusing and readapting an existing structure for a new, better, more modern use. So by saving the historic Sarasota High School we are able to give the structure new life with an educational purpose related to its original existence.” That is sustainability at its very best, and that’s an example of smart design thinking. It’s also a noteworthy bridge between past, present, and future. 

What better place to house visiting artist lectures, cultural exchanges, continuing education classes, and art education?

When SMOA is complete and ready for the community, what will we find inside? Well, SMOA itself will occupy the entire second floor of the 57,000 square-foot Visual Arts Education Center (VEAC). The museum itself will include a double-height grand gallery; large open galleries, smaller galleries for intimate installations; a 110-seat auditorium; and education resource/meeting spaces. There’ll also be administrative offices, a museum gift shop, a cafe with patio and indoor seating, and an expansive outdoor sculpture garden. Plus the entire building will have ADA-accessible ramps and elevators to accommodate the needs of any and all visitors. It’s clear that SMOA will be another grand piece in the growing legacy of our community’s cultural richness.

This January, SMOA celebrated its 2013 ARTmuse program with the “SMOA Inaugural Bash,” featuring renowned artist Patrick Daugherty whose own brand of design is on display via his large-scale environmental sculptures in the front of the building. About the ARTmuse visiting artists program, SMOA President Wendy Surkis explains, “The artists share their creative journey and impart a deep understanding of who they are, what they do and how they do it.” She also added that “Out in Front,” Daugherty’s site-specific piece which was the subject of a massive community photography contest, “will be an inspired addition to this site and further identify the site as an art and learning destination.”

At its core, design is about the tangibility of ideas and human-centeredness that has the goal of creatively engaging others. In short, a building has more function than just to house the interior, and SMOA will reflect that in every way. For now, the drawings and design renderings suggest that symbiotic relationship well, but when the project is done and finally open to the public, just enter the wide double-doors yourself and see what kind of emotional and spiritual impact world-class design can generate with you. That’s what art — and design — is all about.

©2013 SCENE magazine. Used by permission.