With the 2014 Avant Garde fundraiser featuring, among other things, Richard Dreyfus preening in Victorian drag before delivering an impassioned speech on the importance of education, the Ringling College of Art and Design achieved its seven-years-long fundraising goal for the planned Sarasota Museum of Art and set about purchasing the Historic Sarasota High School off US 41. With the recession in the rearview and the community hungering for some sense of forward movement, the energy was infectious. Ringling College President Dr. Larry Thompson set the opening for January 2016 and over the next year and a half, the site was a flurry of activity and photo ops and progress. And then it stopped. “We took a pause,” says Thompson, but cites opportunities not obstacles, and the new Sarasota Museum of Art, he continues, will be better than anyone in 2014 could have anticipated.

Plans for the museum had actually continued apace, with maybe a minor delay due to the sheer amount of work required to renovate a building fallen into such disrepair. There was the usual maintenance—replacing windows, sandblasting the exterior, removing rickety old AC units—but compounded by systemic structural decay that nearly amounted to re-engineering the building in some instances. “We had to re-mortar it,” Thompson says flatly as way of summation. And come early 2015, just as they were ready to begin restructuring the inside and make their museum plans a reality, a new arrival and a fresh opportunity sent them back to the drawing board.

First was the hiring of Anne-Marie Russell as executive director for the incoming museum. Previously executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson, Russell brought an experienced and critical eye with knowledge of the needs and pitfalls of the modern museum—as well as plenty of questions regarding the college’s plans. And though the acquisition of the VisionWorks building next door to the high school—originally the Galloway Furniture store, a Victor Lundy construction—in 2014, offered the possibility of some tweaking to the plans, when the Sarasota High School administration and board contacted Ringling College in 2015 about extending its lease to include an additional 20,000-square-foot building behind the historic school as well as extensive grounds and parking, a redesign became necessary.

Sitting in the conference room outside his office, Thompson and Russell search for the perfect word to describe this fortuitous turn of events. They dismiss “synchronicity” and “synergy” before settling on the suitably artistic “gestalt.” “The cosmos came together,” says Thompson, “and we said, ‘This is the only opportunity we’re ever going to have to rethink how we use this building.’” And they took it.

Paramount in the redesign were two objectives: ensuring that galleries built met world-class museum standards and more fully integrating the museum into the complex as a whole. The previous design, what Russell describes as a “layer cake” or “sandwich,” wouldn’t work, she says, relegating the museum to the second floor and in a sense walling it off from the rest of the campus with continuing learning facilities and administration. Redesigning from the galleries out, Russell and Thompson selected the best locations and accommodated the requisite high ceilings and optimal lighting for each gallery before deciding where and how to build the rest of the campus around them. And though the headlining galleries remain on the second floor, auxiliary programming now has space all throughout the building, cementing the museum as the anchor for the project and that “the focal point, no matter what, is the museum,” says Thompson. And with the addition of the new buildings allowing the shift of storage and preparatory facilities outside the main building, the museum’s real estate within increases. “You’ll hit art on the ground floor,” says Russell. “Wherever you come in, you’ll start to have your museum experience.”

Though the Sarasota Museum of Art is still a ways off (current plans put the opening at the beginning of 2018), Russell has no intention of waiting that long to give the community a taste of what she views a modern museum should be—more than a premiere space for the exhibition of beautiful art, but at its heart an educational institution and hub for creative thought leadership. The Art on Film Series, which began in September with Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery, a documentary exploring the inner workings of the museum, followed by October’s Carmen Herrera: The 100 Years Show, about a Cuban-American abstract painter finding acclaim in her late 90s, continues this month with a film exploring earthworks of the ‘60s as an artistic movement. Each provides their own insight, but taken together they complement as a triadic exploration of the art world through institution, artist and movement. This month, Russell brings two artist talks to the Ringling College main campus—painter/sculptor/writer Joe Fig and author and “creative instigator” Tania Katan—as well as a pre-Art Basel Miami community session entitled “How to Survive an Art Fair,” and with more than 40 such programmatic series in the works, this is the core community engagement that Russell sees as integral to the institution’s success, the constant activity to counter the static nature of a gallery show. “Whatever draws someone to that community campus,” she says, “we want them to discover a lot more and keep coming back.”

With more to come, though the doors to the Historic Sarasota High School remain closed for the time being, the museum is, in Russell’s particular way, open.