ST. PETERSBURG — John E. Schloder, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts who brought blockbuster art and thousands of new visitors to its galleries and raised the area's national profile in the cultural world, announced his retirement Monday.
"I did what I told the board I would do," Schloder said. "Right now, I really want to get back to research and teaching."
He will continue as director through July and has agreed to stay on as a consultant and interim curator of education, as needed, through July 2011.
Schloder, 62, has had a distinguished career in the art world, though he admits he never visited a museum until he was 19. But he was hooked, ditching plans to attend medical school and switching to art. He earned his doctoral degree from the University of Paris-Sorbonne and worked in curatorial departments at the Louvre for eight years. He returned to the United States as assistant director of the Cleveland Art Museum, then became director of two prestigious museums, the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama and the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., before coming to St. Petersburg almost nine years ago.
He said at the time that the appeal of the Museum of Fine Arts, a smaller institution than his previous posts, was the expansion plan.
"I want to take something and grow it," he said.
And he has.
A 2005 show of Dale Chihuly's dramatic glass sculptures and installations broke attendance records with almost 170,000 visitors. A 2006 show featuring the work of impressionist painter Claude Monet drew 100,000 viewers, the number the museum usually draws during an entire year. Both brought national attention to the museum and to St. Petersburg.
In 2008 the 39,000-square-foot, $21 million Hazel Hough Wing opened, doubling gallery space and making possible larger temporary exhibitions such as the monumental sculptures and paintings by Fernando Botero, coming in January.
Schloder is only the fourth director of the museum, which opened in 1965 and sits next to city parkland on the downtown waterfront. He represents in many ways a new breed of art museum directors — business-minded and politically savvy as well as scholarly. Through the years he found a good balance of popular exhibitions with broad appeal and those that were more cerebral and challenging.
"We have had some amazing exhibitions," he said. "The Monet show — for a museum of our size to have organized it, with all the complex loans and a scholarly catalog, then to have it travel to much larger museums — was remarkable. And the (Albrecht) Durer exhibition followed by Lesley Dill, which is probably the most cutting-edge art that has ever been here."
Schloder already has a research project in the works. The French National Museums have appointed him — the only American — to a committee organizing an exhibition of the legendary art collection of Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century power broker for Louis XIII. Schloder is an expert on the subject; it was the topic of his dissertation.
Seymour Gordon, president of the museum board, said, "We were lucky to have him. He's brilliant."
A committee of board members has been formed to search for Schloder's successor.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.