At this week's Ringling International Arts Festival, you can watch a one-man "Hamlet" performed in Farsi with plastic toys, a dancer who blends flamenco with hip hop or a black and white silent film with an original piano score played live.
The Baroque paintings, Ruben tapestries and circus artifacts The Ringling has long been known for are still there. But in just five years, the majestic state museum has outgrown its decades-long reputation as a staid home for Old Masters and circus history and embraced the here and now, as well as the there and then.
And that is in large part due to the festival which, since its 2009 debut, has moved the museum in a significantly new direction.
It may not have drawn the kind of international tourism that was anticipated when state and local governments helped to fund the first two years, but it has helped lead the museum back to the beginnings of its public operation.
The institution's first director, Everett "Chick" Austin, who served for a decade beginning in 1946, was a groundbreaker in promoting contemporary and performance arts in a museum setting. He believed "the museum is the place to integrate the arts and bring them alive."
To that end, he spearheaded the effort to recreate an 18th-century Italian theater imported from Asolo, which gave birth to the Asolo Repertory Theatre. The original theater is now a stage venue for contemporary performance art inside The Ringling's Visitor Pavilion.
But Austin was a man ahead of his time.
"Chick was vilified in this city for bringing in a theater to a museum of art," says Dwight Currie, The Ringling's associate director of programming. "It was an incredible risk."
It is only now, six decades after Austin's tenure, that his vision is being implemented with a commitment to contemporary programming.
Currie and others say the catalyst was the museum board's 2005 commission for the James Turrell Skyspace, which,at that point, was more of an isolated modern aberration.
"Frankly, it seemed like the Turrell was a spaceship that had landed in this Baroque museum," says Steven High, the museum's current director, who arrived in 2011. "There was nothing to support it."
However, while the Turrell was still in the planning stages, the opportunity for RIAF fell into the museum's collective lap. Though it was "more of an opportunity that the museum took advantage of" than part of any grand scheme, it added momentum toward an enduring contemporary presence, High said.
The festival was spearheaded by John McKay, a former state Senate president who was then chairman of the museum board.The state had invested nearly $100 million in the museum campus and he felt Floridians deserved a return on the investment.
"The only way to do that was to get people here," McKay says now.
Through a friend, McKay met Mikhail Baryshnikov, the dancer who now runs his own arts center in New York. Together, they planned for the Baryshnikov Arts Center to program a festival organized by museum staff.
The state provided start-up funds of $1.5 million to cover several years, and the first year's budget, with nearly a dozen productions, was about $1 million.
Given that the funding was finite, High admits that, until recently, "every year was going to be the last year of RIAF." But the festival's enthusiastic reception sparked a growing acknowledgment that there was interest in broadening The Ringling's fare.
In 2009, the festival sold 92 percent of available tickets,prompting a quick decision to turn what was intended as a biennial event into an annual affair. Along with that came the realization that it made sense for it to become part of a year-round program.
Still, it took a perfect storm of personnel and perspectives and a growing audience for nontraditional fare to bring about the transformation.
In 2010, Matthew McLendon was hired as The Ringling's associate curator of modern and contemporary art. The Turrell and RIAFplayed significant roles in luring him to the position.
"It set the stage for the type of work I wanted to do," says McLendon. "The groundwork was already laid."
High, who replaced interim director Marshall Rousseau in the summer of 2011, was drawn here for many of the same reasons.
"I had never been in a museum that had a performance space I could work with, and that brings such a richness," says High, whose previous curatorial work focused on contemporary art. "Part of the reason I came here was because I really like the balance between the contemporary and the historical."
High quickly gave the green light for Currie to attend a program that trains museum directors to curate performances as they would visual exhibitions, around theme, continuity and inter-genre connectivity.
That set the stage for the 2011 debut of "Art of Our Time," the first long-range contemporary initiative at the museum. In its first year, it included "New Stages," a series of contemporary movement performances in the Historic Asolo; the opening of the Skyspace; and the "Beyond Bling" exhibition, including a collection of grafitti art.
Though audiences were small for some events, museum officials discovered a core of locals who begged for more.
"It may not be something they think they'd like, but they're interested in trying it, which for me is the most important thing," says McLendon.
That "Art of Our Time" is only a limited part of The Ringling's entire operation means it has the budget and time to cultivate a following. Currie says the museum has a three-to-five year programming plan, and High has already committed two more years of budgeting for RIAF.
This is a year of transition for the festival, the final year of its partnership with the Baryshnikov center. Future festivals will be programmed in-house.
This year's event opens Wednesday night with a gala featuring flamenco dancer Rocío Molina and includes the Leev Theater Group's "Hamlet, Prince of Grief," the Belarus Free Theatre's "Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker," Tere O'Connor Dance and pianist Stephen Prutsman and the Aeolus Quartet performing to a Buster Keaton film.
The festival serves as the kickoff to "Art of Our Time" and a new series called "NOWHERE: Finding Our Way in the 21st Century."(Pronounced "nowhere" or "now here.")
The presentations of music, movement and visual art are curated to build a long-term relationship with the living artists involved (several are scheduled to return in subsequent years) and a connective thread among the various genres.
It's also meant to address the discomfort audiences can experience when faced with experimental works.
"I think it's good for people to be confused, and to come out and be challenged and say, 'What did I see?' All too often, everything is mediated for us; we're told how to respond," High says.
While there are more than 20 presentations in "NOWHERE" — gathered under the Turrell-inspired rubric "Places in the Sky" — each can be enjoyed in isolation. That they are affordably priced and stretched over four months — rather than the four days of RIAF — may make it easier for people to enjoy more, McLendon says.
The programming moves The Ringling toward becoming a more multi-faceted venue that can remain vibrant as art and artistic tastes evolve, while continuing to weave a connective thread to the past.
"This represents a major development in the history of this institution and this city," says Currie. "Many people think museums are places you only go to once, and then you think you've seen what's there to see and you don't go.
"We want to make the museum a place that people continually want to return to."