A permanent exhibition at the new headquarters of the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida highlights the diligent work of the people contracted to help preserve the 93-year-old building around the show.
For the last year, local photographer Barbara Banks has quietly observed construction at the M. Leo Elliott-designed Sarasota High School, a Collegiate Gothic-style building at the edge of downtown that’s being renovated by Lawson Group Architects and K/R Architects. The result of her study, a photo series entitled The Worker Project, will be on view starting Saturday, December 14, when the museum officially opens to the public.
The behind-the-scenes work of restoration often goes unnoticed, Banks explained. “Much of it you won’t see like welding, painting, piping, or men working on masonry,” she said. “Each element of work on the historic building was very carefully administered by each person and I wanted to be there for the intimate moments.”
Through traversing the site each day, Banks cultivated relationships with many of the workers, all of which were contracted through the Sarasota-based Willis Smith Construction. Some of the men and women on-site (including Banks) were graduates of Sarasota High School and expressed pride working on their alma mater, which includes the 1959 annex building designed by Paul Rudolph. Both structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.
Because of the site’s storied history, the quality of craftsmanship was elevated, Banks said. “It immediately engendered respect from everyone involved.”
Anne-Marie Russell, director of the Sarasota Art Museum, has been working to move the institution into its new home for the past five years. The expansion to the Ringling College Museum Campus complex, also designed by Rudolph and Victory Lundy, was necessary due to the organization’s growing needs. According to Sarasota Magazine, it’s expected to receive 125,000 visitors in the coming year.
The Sarasota High building that the museum now sits in hasn’t been active with students in 23 years, and Russell’s team was eager to infuse its three stories with contemporary art. Demolition and construction work on the project began in June 2017 and wrapped up this October.
To Russell, The Worker Project will serve as a reminder of the museum’s rich legacy and the meticulous work done to bring it into the 21st century. “The through-line here exists in the quality of skills used on this site,” said Russell. “We work with artists and we know that manual labor is intellectual labor and vice versa. The overriding theme of this project was to shed light on the skilled people who do this work, especially against the backdrop of automation when all craftsmanship and connoisseurship is disappearing before our eyes.”
Just like the men who built Elliott and Rudolph’s design with their own hands decades ago, those profiled in The Worker Project are part of a shared history. “That’s the power of adaptive reuse,” said Russell. “When you’re responding to an existing condition rather than just working off a drawing from scratch, every single person becomes a collaborator on improving the project. Everyone here demonstrated their unique expertise.”
David Stershic, a 1974 graduate of Sarasota High, served as the general superintendent on the project. He oversaw the daily work of over 100 people and expressed how Banks’ own work affected him. “As the project evolved, I began to see it as paying homage to the common man who made this project successful.”
But what’s more, he said, was the way Banks interacted with his team. “It amazed me that she got personal with all the workers. Every day she came in and took time to get to know their stories—what their talents are, what they’ve been through, what their lives are like.”
The Worker Project will be on display at the new Sarasota Art Museum at 1001 S Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, Florida starting next week.