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Chihuly Collection is still on, despite lean times for arts

The site where an addition to the Morean Arts Center will be built sits vacant in St. Petersburg.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

The site where an addition to the Morean Arts Center will be built sits vacant in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — A new wing at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, construction on a home for the works of surrealist Salvador Dali and a museum dedicated to the glass creations of Dale Chihuly are among the gems to which proud residents refer when they boast of a cultural renaissance in St. Petersburg. Across Tampa Bay, work has begun on the new Tampa Museum of Art.

And civic leaders continually cite a vibrant creative community as an incubator for business.

Still, a stalled economy and traditionally sluggish summer tourism and retail in Florida mean that all such institutions have had to make adjustments in hopes of surviving.

And doomsday rumors that were whispers just weeks ago suddenly started to sound like thunder.

At the Morean Arts Center, the closing of the retail store and restructuring of the staff have fueled concerns about the future of the Chihuly Collection.

Two employees were laid off, and a number of job descriptions and assignments were changed, executive director Katee Tully said. The shop had become a financial drain. And Morean Arts Center officials are in continuing negotiations with their bank about financing, she said.

"Given the liquidity crisis," she wrote in an e-mail, "we are exploring different packages than originally contemplated. (Not the most uncommon of situations these days.) Our bank has been extremely supportive and cooperative through the process, and we are all optimistic that we will reach an agreement."

As for the museum, Tully said: "We expect to move forward with the Chihuly Collection in a way that achieves our original objectives of providing the Morean with a more predictable revenue stream and gives the community another strong engine for economic development."

Construction at the new $35 million Salvador Dali Museum along the St. Petersburg waterfront is under way and on schedule, executive director Hank Hine said Thursday, adding that the museum raised $1.6 million for its capital campaign just last week.

"Operationally, everybody's challenged," he acknowledged. The Dali relies on admission fees and gift store sales for much of its annual budget. Retail receipts are down about 5 percent, he said, and the museum has reduced some hours.

"We've always been this lean thing," Hine said. "In an economy like this, nobody gets a raise."

At the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, which opened the Hazel Hough Wing in 2008, salary and hiring freezes are in effect, public relations director David Connelly said.

Nonetheless, a solo exhibition of works by 20th century pop artist Andy Warhol has generated steady traffic since its opening in mid May. Bank of America, which owns the collection, provided the show through its Art in Our Communities Program.

"Admissions, store sales and new memberships have been a huge boon to us because we didn't have that rental fee," Connelly said. "That was an incredible gift to us from the bank during a trying time, especially during the summer months."

Judy Lisi, president of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, said the center went into the economic downtown in a solid position, with no debt and healthy reserves.

But like everyone else, the performing arts center is taking a hit and cut 13 jobs from the payroll about six weeks ago.

Donations have dropped 8 percent to 10 percent, she said, although longtime supporters are generally sticking with the facility.

Todd Smith, director of the Tampa Museum of Art, said museum leaders continue to solicit donations for its capital campaign.

"What we have heard mostly are requests to revisit the conversation in a couple months," he said.

General fundraising efforts this year have focused on $1,000 annual gifts, which Smith said have been successful. To entice current museum members who contribute less than $1,000 a year to renew, the museum is offering 16 months of benefits instead of just 12.

At the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, executive director Carolyn Bass said, "We saw kind of the writing on the wall before the market got really bad. We had already tightened up our wallets, and we were very careful about our spending.

"We laid off staff," she said, although she said some of those employees have returned to work part time. "We haven't lost any donors. Percentage-wise, some are giving a little less money."

The museum did not cut programming, and Bass said it soon will launch Campaign for Growth, a multiyear sustainability program designed to build financial reserves and help expand the museum's offerings.

Meanwhile, at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, unpaid workers are doing much of the work to keep the doors open.

"We've had to cut museum hours and staff in order to balance our budget," board of directors president Connie Kone said.

The museum's director is on furlough, and volunteers are "filling in the holes on marketing, membership and database," she said. "Things that we seriously need."

Kone said the museum has a recovery plan that includes a fundraising goal of $100,000 by the end of the year.

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report.

Chihuly Collection is still on, despite lean times for arts 07/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 2:49pm]
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