An Artful Morning: Our Students Visit The Ringling Museum
In January, a news report on NPR inspired us with a story about special programs that enable the visually impaired to enjoy touring an art museum. For many people born blind, the pleasures of interacting with paintings, sculptures, and architecture often seem to be totally out of reach. For others who may have lost their sight to accident or disease, a trip to a museum is generally crossed off the list of potential experiences. But thanks to a new partnership with the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Southeastern Guide Dogs’ classes for visually impaired students now include a delightful and informative tour of the circus impresario’s impressive collection.
With the advice, guidance, and input of Suzy Wilburn, director of admissions and alumni support, nine new guide dog handlers from class #258 who had never before visited The Ringling shared a special treat just before their August 2017 graduation. They and their trainers were invited to the inaugural guided tour of five works of art—all featuring dogs in the theme—including four historic paintings and a replica of a classic sculpture that John Ringling purchased for his world-class museum in the early part of the 20th Century. Laura Steefel-Moore of The Ringling’s Education Department offered her finely detailed description of each piece, bringing the canvases and bronze sculpture to life for the enthusiastic group.
“The students all really enjoyed the trip to the museum,” said trainer Alice Ryskamp. “It was nice for them to be able to experience some culture in a real-life situation with their new guide dog before they go home tomorrow. I think some of them were nervous how their dog would behave, but all the dogs settled as they should and worked throughout the museum perfectly. Besides being a fun outing, I think it was a nice confidence booster for the students before they leave the help of their trainers.”
Using props to illustrate key objects in the paintings, such as a silk scarf, a lace dress, and a small, stuffed dog that represented an 18th Century “purse puppy” held under a woman’s arm, Steefel-Moore encouraged the class to use their imaginations to visualize the art, as well as donning plastic gloves to run their hands over the 3-D parts of a stylized Capitoline Wolf cast in bronze. The guides took it all in stride, showing off their excellent behavior and public manners, while the threatening wolf figure offered a good opportunity for Ryskamp to reinforce how to introduce the dogs to a large, scary foreign object.
Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, public places such as museums must allow service dogs to accompany their human patrons. Forward-thinking institutions such as The Ringling want to embrace all visitors, and look for ways to be more inclusive of people with various disabilities. That’s why the museum outing, which will now be a regular feature of all Southeastern Guide Dog classes, is such a win-win for all.
To top off the morning, the class enjoyed a picnic lunch on the beautiful Ringling grounds outside the Banyan Café.
Nancy Gaspar with guide dog Marisa was particularly enthusiastic about the experience. “My favorite was the statue that we got to touch because she described each piece of art, but when I was able to feel it, I got the real picture of what it was,” she shared. “I enjoyed the museum so much that I’m going to take my family back this afternoon!”