When Dr. Larry Thompson arrived as the president of Ringling College of Art and Design in 1999, the small institution had already started to modernize its technology and facilities. Yet there seemed some consternation about the college growing beyond the small-town art school it had been for the first seven decades of its existence. “When I first mentioned growing to 1,000 students, I thought people would start coming after me with pitchforks,” Thompson recalls. “They thought that would destroy the institution. So I quit talking about it and just did it.” As the college today undergoes the greatest capital investment and physical expansion of campus since the school opened in 1931, attitudes have shifted greatly. In a physical representation of said attitudes, students recently stood in line across campus for a ceremonial passing of books into the new Alfred R. Goldstein Library. Construction continues on the Basch Visual Arts Center in the middle of campus. The Ringling College Soundstage and Post Production Facility will soon be hosting student films alongside projects overseen by such major filmmakers as Dylan McDermott and Kevin Smith. And that’s all just the main campus. Slowly but surely, a renovation continues on a southern campus for Ringling that will transform the original Sarasota High School building into the Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA). That project has only grown in scope, with addition of more land and buildings and the coming inclusion of the Lifelong Learning Academy under the Ringling umbrella. Thompson dismisses a certain amount of credit for this explosive growth; it’s really a rapid injection of funds from a variety of donors that led to the simultaneous pursuit of so many construction projects at once. But there’s little doubt the ambition behind efforts stems from Thompson himself. Even with cranes rising on campus and off in the name of Ringling College, the school president says he’s not yet satisfied. “We’re on our way to being the preeminent art school in the country,” he says, “and we’re on the fast track to get there.”

Rock Star Academia

Unlike many college presidents to serve in the region, Thompson didn’t set out to become an academic. He entered college with a plan to practice medicine but ended up with a bachelor’s in math, a master’s in counseling and education administration and a doctorate in law. He would go on to serve as full-time counsel for Ohio State University, where he, at various times, also oversaw athletic and media programs. He seemingly left campus life behind as he oversaw the development of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the expansion of the Flint Cultural Center in Michigan. When Ringling College started a search for a new president, Thompson answered the call and moved to the Gulf Coast.

Now 18 years into his tenure, Thompson has become, in many ways, the face of higher education in the region. Over that time, he’s seen a major change in the college’s standing and reputation both within this community and beyond. “When I got here, this was already a good place, but it was definitely in the second tier of art and design schools in the country,” he recalls. Ringling could be found in rankings along such regional schools as the Kansas City Art Institute, but he wanted the name ranked alongside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Parsons School of Design in New York. And while the college doesn’t get the boost that comes from being located in one of the nation’s major metropoles, US News & World Report in 2014 ranked the school as the most wired in the country, and Animation Career Resource lists the digital animation program as second only to the California Institute of the Arts. The Digital Filmmaking program at Ringling was ranked No. 16 in the country last year. Best Art Colleges lists the school in the top 25 percent of fine arts programs in the nation.

Just as important as the raised reputation for the college in national standings may be the continued growth, both in buildings and prestige, in the eyes of Gulf Coast residents. That’s important in some practical ways—donations and trustee support remain as vital to Ringling College’s future as any private college—as well as in the acceptance of the broader community. When the college went before Sarasota City Commissioners two years ago about an expansion into Newtown, leaders in the north Sarasota community knew Ringling as a constructive force, and the college received a generally warm embrace. Certainly, the greeting was kinder than what greeted the college in 2009 when the school sought to turn the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium into a soundstage. When a new soundstage was now proposed on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, though, the college was treated as a job creator in a blighted part of town. “Most of Newtown embraced it—not everyone,” Thompson acknowledges. “But we’re not trying to go in and gentrify Newtown. It worked because people see the soundstage as both commercial and academic.”

Likewise, the film program has drawn Hollywood players to town; actor Dylan McDermott regularly visits the region as film students help create the Sugar web series, a project that also benefits Selah Freedom, a local nonprofit.

Thompson himself has also volunteered on committees for the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, organizations that don’t always get associated with fine arts programs. But then, this also speaks to a side of the real world that Thompson feels gets lost too often amid the feuding interests of academic and corporate concerns. Since arriving at Ringling, Thompson has maintained a vow to demolish the myth of the “starving artist,” producing graduates in lucrative fields helps to do that.

“Our board is out there more too,” notes Stephanie Lederer, public relations manager for Ringling College. She says the entire culture around community connectedness has transformed over the last two decades—the college puts stock in dismissing an image of itself as an Art Deco ivory tower on Tamiami Trail. Dean Eisner, chairman of the board of trustees at Ringling College, credits a great deal of that to Thompson’s presence at the school. “Larry has been intimately involved in many of the opportunities to build Sarasota’s infrastructure—serving on community boards, engaging leaders and championing collaboration,” Eisner says. “As a creative thought leader, his influence has been impactful to raising the profile of Ringling College locally, nationally and internationally—and the benefits have likewise accrued to the Gulf Coast area.”

Taking Over

Thompson’s longevity in the president’s office has also changed his standing in local academia. The new kid on the block for his first decade in the big chair, Thompson today has served as president of a Sarasota-Bradenton area school for longer than anyone else still turning tassels at graduation. That may be why so much of the talk about the Consortium of Colleges on the Creative Coast (C4 for short) has fixed some attention on Thompson’s role. “It’s impressive to see institutions here become more connected,” Thompson says, though he refuses to take sole credit.

Indeed, he notes he also presided at Ringling in the early 2000s, when some of the local schools still seemed locked in a competitive stance. While Ringling remained the art leader, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM) and State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF) would duke it out for funding to programs like nursing. But a year and a half ago, the C4 initiative was announced with an almost entirely new cast of characters: Donal O’Shea took over as New College of Florida president in 2012, Carole Probstfeld got promoted to SCF president in 2013 and Sandra Stone came in as USFSM chancellor in 2014.

The C4 initiative has created synergies in administrative functions such as emergency preparedness but has also given students at every campus new academic opportunities, allowing them to cross-register for classes while only paying tuition at a home campus. To Thompson, it allows his own students a chance to develop work-related skills at a state college better suited for that type of classwork while still pursuing art degrees at one of the finest art schools in the country. But that’s not to say Ringling College doesn’t have an eye on curricula outside the studio. Last year, it was announced that the Lifelong Learning Academy would get folded into the Ringling family. The Lifelong Learning Academy, previously an independent entity, had long found a physical home at the USFSM campus, but as the university made room for dormitories and its first live-in students, the academy had to find a new space to live.

Thompson, meanwhile, says he has long imagined some kind of continuing education taking place in the old Sarasota High School building currently being renovated to host SMOA; indeed, an educational element has always been part of the agreement with the Sarasota School Board to use the building. The chance to bring the academy under the Ringling College list of offerings gives the chance to make the SMOA campus more than a high-end museum and gallery. Classrooms at the old high school will be used to keep intellectually curious adults engaged in study beyond classes tailored to students seeking degrees.

 “We will be bringing all of our faculty into one place and increasing our breadth and diversity of classes,” says Janna Overstreet, who will direct lifelong learning at Ringling’s south campus. “This will benefit our students because lifelong learners like to learn in a social setting, and they benefit greatly from interaction with one another.” And last May, Pierian Spring Academy announced it too would add its program to Ringling, making the arts college one of the biggest players in lifelong learning in Florida.

But the biggest boosts in growth have been on the main campus. As the school explodes in size, Thompson describes a serendipitous merging of opportunities that culminated over years. The Basch Visual Arts Center, slated to redefine the heart of the college, came about, for example, when donors Richard and Barbara Basch offered to meet the need of studios for more space to work. Along that line, with hype around such tech-heavy programs as animation and film, it seemed to Thompson a great opportunity to boost disciplines such as illustration, painting and sculpture that provide a foundation to the art school even if they generate less press. So with the Basch’s support, the project grew to a mammoth center providing new gallery space replacing the beloved (but aging) Selby Gallery. The opportunity for a new Alfred R. Goldstein Library arose simply because the Library Association completed a fundraising campaign around the same time, and a long-time partnership with Semkhor Productions helped make the soundstage a priority. The school two years ago brought on Anne-Marie Russell as an executive director for SMOA, and she quickly pushed for grander plans for the facility. Originally planned with a 6,700-square-foot gallery space, the SMOA plans now call for 15,000 square feet of public space, a construction made popular by the purchase of adjoining property and a deal with the School Board to add on a building that was previously used for Sarasota High School. The growth means the museum won’t open until early 2018—two years behind the original timeline—but Thompson assures it will be worth the wait.

Next Moves

Thompson right now has a lot of ribbon-cuttings and ceremonies to plan, but he says the college won’t stop growing anytime soon. Since his arrival, the student body expanded from about 850 students to roughly 1,400. “We’ll never be the size of Savannah College of Art and Design, but we want to make sure we retain quality,” he says. That means continuing to modernize not only with computer technology, but also by giving students working in all mediums the right tools and studio space to succeed. “It’s all about maintaining creativity,” Thompson says. “Of course, there is no reason any other institution shouldn’t be able to do it, but they don’t. For us, it’s not about coping with change, but rather making it happen.”

Perhaps the greatest testimonial to Thompson’s influence can be read above a door to a large building on the south end of campus—the Larry R. Thompson Academic Center. College structures normally get named for major donors, such as the Basches or Alfred Goldstein. But trustees decided the academic center, one of the major campus-redefining capital projects to open during Thompson’s tenure, should celebrate the college president.

During a ceremony to dedicate the building in mid-2016, Thompson arrived with no prior knowledge the building would be renamed. He still recalls the anxious feeling when he saw his own name in raised letters. “Are you trying to tell me something?” he joked at the time. Well, half-joked—he had been on campus for a decade and a half.

He has since been reassured nobody wants a retirement to come anytime soon, and Thompson doesn’t intend to head out. He’s gotten recruitment calls before, but with a canvas like Ringling College, there’s no reason yet for him to seek a new studio space in which to paint.  

About the Artist: Dr. Larry Thompson’s photo was superimposed over a project by Ringling College student Trent Sivek called Phonetica. Sivek’s senior thesis, Phonetica is a piece of artwork that is rendered in real time using Unreal Engine 4. The project is also interactive; a player can control a young girl and storm their way through a musical palace via shouting loudly.