International festival coming to Ringling

images-1Bradenton Herald — To those outside the Florida sphere, the Ringling name is more synonymous with the circus world than anything else. But, Bradenton resident and former state senator John McKay hopes the upcoming Ringling International Arts Festival just might change that.

Scheduled to be presented on the John and Mable Ringling Museum estate in Sarasota from Oct. 7 to 11, the festival will allow the world to discover the artistic side behind the name.

McKay, a Ringling supporter who also lends his name to the visitor’s center, introduced the idea. It is a festival inspired by John Ringling’s love of the arts, he said, and will showcase a number of contemporary visual and performing arts.

The idea for a festival has stirred in McKay since 2002, when the state provided $42.9 million for expansions on the Ringling campus.

Giving a large amount of taxpayer’s money to the institution didn’t seem right if there wasn’t a significant rate of return to follow, he said. When the Ringling changed hands from the state to the Florida State University in 2000, part of the return would be the additional educational opportunities an expansion would create for the students.

But McKay saw another way taxpayer’s could benefit from the investment.

“If you were able to generate activity, increased economic activity as a result of it — in my mind, that’s a rate of return for taxpayers. All of us, me included. The only way I knew how to do that is to have some sort of festival,” he said.

That festival would have to stand out from the rest, drawing people locally, regionally and internationally.

There were two such festivals McKay could think of that have already accomplished those things — the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland and the artistically-laced Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.

Spoleto began as a spin-off of the Festival of Two Worlds, according to Two Worlds gave young American artists in Europe a platform to show off their work. The event quickly attracted a large following of traditional and progressive artists. Organizers of the event looked to the small, but artsy city of Charleston to host an American version of Two Worlds which became an artistic and economic success.

“I think the festival has experienced a renaissance here,” said Paula Edwards, Spoleto director of marketing and public relations.

For example, an estimated 39,000 visitors attended Spoleto 2005, according to a study done by the University of South Carolina. More than half of those visitors were from outside of the state and one percent were international guests. Overall, visitors spent an estimated $35.7 million in Charleston and an average of 80,000 tickets are sold during the 17-day festival. The impact has enhanced Charleston as a vacation destination.

Edinburgh’s Tattoo fest attracts 217,000 people internationally, according to the festival’s Web site at They contribute an estimated 88 million pounds ($124 million) to the Scottish economy.

“We may never be as big as Edinburgh,” McKay said. “But I figure none of those organizations have a launching pad that is (of one the) largest museums in the country. . . . So the campus can be a huge draw.”

The Ringling, which sits on a 66-acre estate on the Sarasota Bay, is one of the 25 largest museum/university complexes in the nation in terms of size. Its permanent collect holds an estimated 10,000 objects spanning from ancient to modern works.

Enter Baryshnikov

But the festival had to involve more than the museum and a few events. Having a big name involved would help attract crowds. It had to be someone modern. Someone who had a pulse on the art world. Someone like Mikhail Baryshnikov.

The Russian-born Baryshnikov is a world-renown dancer associated with the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet.

In 2005, he opened the Baryshnikov Arts Center which serves as a creative laboratory for artists around the world.

Baryshnikov was one a several big names McKay thought might help with the festival.

One of McKay’s business associates arranged a meeting to see if the performer could help jump start the new event. Then they persuaded the dancer to visit Sarasota for a tour.

“He was changing his mind on the way down,” McKay said. “Then he got here. We took him through the museum. We took him through the Asolo and the old Asolo and the opera house in downtown Sarasota, and he did a 180.”

Pedja Muzijevic, Baryshnikov Arts Center’s director of music programming, was also on the tour. He was astonished by the beauty of the arts in area.

“We just really fell in love with the place,” Muzijevic said. “We saw the possibilities.”

Muzijevic and Baryshnikov envisioned a festival with activities going on all day. It would be the perfect place to extend the center’s mission of showcasing a clearinghouse of artists, Muzijevic said.

To bring progressive and contemporary artistic talents to the masses, both the Ringling and the Baryshnikov Arts Center decided to make festival performances affordable for everyone. Single tickets will be offered for around $10-$30, and will go on sale in May. Festival packages are expected to be available this month although organizers are still working on pricing. The latest appeal in visual arts, dance, theater and music from around the world will be presented. In addition, FSU performing arts students will participate in various facets of the festival — from performing in the galleries and gardens to behind-the-scenes work, said Dwight Currie, Ringling’s associate director of museum programs. The type of events students will produce are still being planned. In fact, 150 young students from the area will be invited to the festival’s opening night events for free, Currie said.

Muzijevic’s goal for the festival: He wants those who attend to be moved by the performances.

“I hope they are inspired, delighted and entertained by it,” he said. “It’s everything that the arts can bring to somebody. There’s really something for everyone.”

Plans are to have the festival every two years. Organizers said the inaugural event will start small, with potential growth in subsequent years.

A boost to tourism

Groups such as Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism industry marketing corporation, welcome the festival and what it will do for tourism.

“I think we are always thrilled when groups come to Florida,” said Lillian Spencer, Visit Florida’s director of public relations. “It demonstrates that Florida is still a great place.”

In the past year, Spencer said the Sunshine State had 82 million visitors, which was down by about two percent because of the economy.

Spencer said Florida has fared better than most states because it offers great weather, nice beaches and many cultural outlets.

One of those outlets is the Ringling Museum.

It houses John and Mable Ringling’s Venetian-styled 56-room mansion, galleries filled with their vast art collection, a large rose garden and the historic Asolo Theater, which was imported from Italy.

There’s also an art research library, a circus museum, which houses the world’s largest miniature circus, and more.

The estate draws an average of 300,000 visitors a year.

A look at the Ringling estate is a window into art of all kinds. It was the kind of art John Ringling wanted to share with the world.

With this in mind, McKay believes Ringling’s name should used in the festival’s branding.

“I really insisted upon it being the Ringling festival because it’s about John Ringling,” said McKay. “He’s the one that gave us the magical gift. It isn’t about Sarasota. It isn’t about Bradenton. It’s about promoting the museum that is now the 12th largest in the country. … I think it’s important to remember that without John Ringling, none of this would ever be possible.”

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