Ringling Brothers Clowns Exhibit
Credit: Courtesy The Ringling

The Ringling, the art museum in Sarasota, began when John and Mable Ringling moved the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to the town in 1927. John built a surreal Venetian Gothic palace, called Ca’d’Zan (or House of John), one of the great Florida fantasy houses, with 56 rooms and an expansive tiled terrace. Over the years, the Ringling Museum of Art (which now boasts first-rate contemporary art shows), the Circus Museum, and the Historic Asolo Theater followed—all under the same premises.

The Circus Museum debuted on the property in 1948, with a collection that includes the Wisconsin (a railroad car formerly used by the Ringlings), costumes, props, and one of the cannons used to launch acrobats across circus tents. In 2006, the Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center (funded, in part, by Howard and Janice Tibbals) opened with a collection of posters, elaborate models of circus shows. It still displays rotating exhibits, and the latest, “Clowns!,” opens September 11 and will run through November 30.

“Clowns!” examines the importance of clowns in circus advertising, from the 1850s to the contemporary age, and includes such gems as a 1930 image of a Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus Clown, a poster created by Erie Lithographing & Printing Co. (shown above).

From the beginning, clowns have fed the advertising iconography of the circus, even as the performing styles of clowns have changed: the Tibbals Learning Center, for example, houses a mural, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” featuring Gunther Gebel-Williams, aerialist Dolly Jacobs, and her father, the great contemporary clown Lou Jacobs. A pivotal figure in the circus world, Jacobs proves the enduring power of clown artistry—one that continues today.

Tom Austin is based in Miami and covers the Florida beat for Travel + Leisure. Follow him on Twitter at @TomAustin__.