The First Fifty Years-

Ringling School of Art and Design

Sarasota, FL 1931-1981

Robert E. Perkins


John Ringling - October 2, 1931

The story of the auspicious beginnings of the school now known as Ringling School of Art and Design, and its heroic struggles thereafter, makes for one of those inspiring tales in the best tradition of the American Dream.

The idea for a new school actually sprang from a desire on the part of Dr. Ludd M. Spivey, then President of Southern College (now called Florida Southern College of Lakeland), to garner financial support for his college from the Sarasota Circus Magnate, John Ringling. Dr. Spivey was soon to learn three important facts. First, John Ringling was not interested in giving to Southern College; second, John Ringling was at the time nearly broke; and third, John Ringling was very much interested in establishing an art school in conjunction with the museum which he had constructed in the form of an Italian villa to house his vast collection of 17th Century sculpture and paintings.

The suggestion of an art school was discussed, and after much negotiation it was finally agreed that they would open a school in Sarasota as a branch of Southern College. It would be known as THE SCHOOL OF FINE AND APPLIED ART OF THE JOHN AND MABLE RINGLING ART MUSEUM.

Verman Kimbrough, who was Chairman of the Music Department, part-time athletic coach and teacher of sociology and social psychology at Southern, was chosen by Dr. Spivey to become the Resident Director of the new school. Mr. Kimbrough had come to Florida Southern at the invitation of Dr. Spivey after the two met once again at the 82nd birthday party of Thomas Edison. They had met previously at Birmingham Southern College where Spivey was on the faculty and Verman Kimbrough was a student. The birthday party was held at the Edison residence in Fort Myers, Florida, and Kimbrough, who was a well known opera star at the time, was invited from Birmingham, Alabama, to sing at this affair. Others attending the party on this grand occasion were Herbert Hoover, Henry Ford, and Harvey S. Firestone.

Dr. Spivey, Mr. Ringling, and Mr. Kimbrough discussed the question of location for the new school. A logical spot would be on or near the grounds of the museum. Several blocks from the museum, on Thirty-third Street (now Twenty-seventh Street) the three found a vacant boomtime hotel, the former Bayhaven Hotel, and several adjacent store buildings, all empty and available. The insurance company that owned the property was delighted to find someone to take the property over for taxes and insurance payments. The buildings were renovated at a cost of $45,000, and John Ringling agreed to raise the necessary money to underwrite the renovation needs. The same contractor who constructed the museum and the Ringling Mansion went over the entire project installing skylights, partitions and other alterations needed in order to prepare the property for a boarding art school and junior college.

The work was completed and that Fall, on October 2, 1931, THE SCHOOL OF FINE AND APPLIED ART OF THE JOHN AND MABLE RINGLING ART MUSEUM was officially opened. Formal exercises were held in the courtyard of the Ringling Museum with an estimated 3,000 people in attendance. Businesses in the area were closed for two hours in order to allow employees to attend. At that time the population of the city was approximately 7,000 and the county 11,000. John Ringling, in a rare speaking appearance, spoke about his great enthusiasm and anticipation for the potential of the new school. It was in this speech that he used the phrase, "Though Life is Short, Art is Long." Other speakers were U.S. Senator, Duncan Fletcher and Methodist Bishop, John Moore of Texas.

The Sarasota Herald commented in an editorial, "Today is an auspicious day for Sarasota. The future looks better and brighter with the opening of the Art School and Junior College." Dr. Ludd M. Spivey, the President of Southern College, was named Chief Director of the school and Verman Kimbrough became the Resident Director.

"The School started off with quite a bang," said Mr. Kimbrough. "We had about seventy-five students in the first class, and every member of the Junior College Faculty, but one, was a Ph.D. One of our teachers was Dr. Laura Ganno-McNeill, who was the first woman in the United States to obtain a Ph.D. That must have been about 1880. She taught biology and general sciences." The first student to register was

                                                  FRANK NORMAN FROM MINDEN, LOUISIANA

Seventy-five students came to the new school in Sarasota which had as its purpose to "do more than develop artistic talent and to provide intellectual training; its purpose will include the fullest development of personality ... in order to assist each student to a happy adjustment to the circumstances of the world in which he finds himself."

The first administration and faculty of the school were the following:


Dr. Ludd Myrl Spivey Director

Verman Kimbrough Resident Director

Carl Syfan Cox Dean

Walter Omer Ropp Bursar

Edith Averyt Kimbrough Dean of Women



Verman Kimbrough Instructor in Voice

Howard J. Barnum Director of the Conservatory

Helen Wood Barnum Instructor in Piano

Oliver A. Seaver Sims Instructor in Journalism

George Pearse Ennis Head of Art Faculty

Hilton Leech Instructor in Art

Benjamin Turner Kurtz Instructor in Sculpture

Laura Gana McNeill Professor of Biology

Ezra Winter Instructor in Art

John H. Phillips Instructor in Architecture

Wayman Adams Instructor in Portrait Painting

Carl Johan Nordell Instructor in Art

Ben Earl Looney Instructor in Art


This house was built in Lafayette, LA 70501   315 Moss Street  The house was built in 1927 by Mr. & Mrs. Lionel B. Jeanmard in 1927 when they were married.

  Submitted by:  Catharine Jeanmard McCasland

Painting by Ben Earl Looney


This is the former home of Mr. & Mrs. Roy Miller.  Ben Earl Looney lived here with his sister and her husband (the Millers) while he was  a Minden resident.                                                                        

Ben Earl Looney's Art studio in Minden, Louisiana


In 1935 Ben Earl Looney, was organizer and head of the first Art Department at LSU. He created a whimsical, illustrated plan of Louisiana State University. Fascimilies of this plan are for sale at the LSU Union Bookstore and at Hill Memorial Library for $20.00 apiece to support the Louisiana State Archives.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ben Earl Looney is a great Louisiana story. He founded the Louisiana State University Art Department. He was elected to the Board of Control of the Art Students' League. He also taught art near Boston and lived in New York City for 9 years. However, most of his life was spent in the South, primarily Louisiana.

He painted nearly every plantation home in Louisiana that was standing from 1940-1970. He painted numerous large oil murals for various dignitaries and clientele, including the Ford Motor Company. But his favorite medium was watercolor. Most of his watercolors are textbook examples on form and style. His subjects were usually landscapes and his work is impeccable.

Sidney S Moreland IV:
Ben Earl Looney's "favorite medium" was not watercolor. Although most of his work published in books is watercolor, the majority of his non-published work is not watercolor. Most of this work is either oil or acrylic and is in private family collections. Looney was my great-grandmother's brother, and most of this unpublished work has remained in my family. Most of it, though, he did not bother to sign.

Earl (as he was called-- died about a month after I was born) also wrote stories and short poetry, some of which was published in a couple of his books (I forget the titles). He also came up with the slogan for WWL, a local television station: "A station to remember in the city care forgot," for which my great-grandmother was crowned queen of New Orleans for a day because Earl was in the hospital (I forget why--it was late in his life).

Lindsay, Great-grand niece of Ben Earl Looney


Henry (Harry) Hutchinson Shaw and Ben Earl Looney, influenced by a strong regionalist movement in the American Midwest, captured images unique to the south Louisiana landscape, glorifying this largely rural region. Shaw’s Rice for the World and Looney’s Live Oak celebrate the bounty and beauty that surround us.

Source: Paul and Lulu Hilliard University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Drawer 42571 . Lafayette, LA . 70504-2571


The first full-color book of plantation paintings, Beau Sejour, was presented by Claitor’s Publishing in 1972. It presents the watercolors of Ben Earl Looney, who headed LSU’s first art department and taught in New England and New York before retiring to Lafayette.



Ben Earl Looney's home in Lafayette, Louisiana

Minden City Cemetery - Section A. This is the beginning of the newer portion of the cemetery which is located on the north side of Bayou Avenue.

Julian A Looney 17 July 1871-09 May 1858

 Mollie M. Looney 17 Jul. 1872-18 Dec. 1932

Julian L. Looney was a Pvt. Off Tng. School WWI born 08 Jun. 1894 died 27 Aug. 1958

Molly M. Gouletas born 06 Nov. 1937 died 07 Apr. 1990

Sister: Eula Looney Moseley  born 03 Oct. 1896 died 19 Mar. 1986

Robert D. Moseley born 12 Aug. 1894 died 18 Sep. 1972

Sister: Lucille Looney Miller born 18 Oct. 1898 died 20 Dec. 1994

Roy Winn Miller Sr. born 11 Sep. 1899 died 26 Jul. 1981