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First Person | Carol Upham

Carol Upham retires from Museum of Fine Arts and looks ahead to Act IV

Carol Upham stands in the photography gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts’ new wing, which she was instrumental in building.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Carol Upham stands in the photography gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts’ new wing, which she was instrumental in building.

Carol Upham is hazy about some dates, but of one she is sure: 1980, the year she became a trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. For the next 28 years, Mrs. Upham would serve on the board, becoming its president in 1998.

She officially retired from the volunteer position about a month ago, having worked with three directors and two expansion projects. The most recent opened in February, a $21-million addition. Mrs. Upham felt, on its completion, she could step aside and pursue what she calls "Act IV" of her life.

Mrs. Upham was born in Chicago in 1934 and moved in the 1950s with her parents to St. Pete Beach, where her father bought property, including the Bon Aire Motel, which is still owned by the family.

She continues to live in St. Pete Beach.

When did you become interested in art, especially photography, which you have collected over many decades?

I saw a photography exhibition, "The Family of Man," in New York in the 1950s at the Museum of Modern Art. I was working for a publishing house at the time after college. It just blew me away. The idea of photo-

graphy as a personal interest began there. I began learn-

ing the craft of photography and forming my own collection . . .

You had a big career in the making in publishing. Why did you return to this area in the 1960s?

My father needed me back to help with the motel and I continued to pursue photography as a hobby. At some point, I had the nerve to approach Bob Hodgell (a noted local artist and professor at Florida Presbyterian College, now Eckerd College) and show him my work. He gave me an exhibit at Florida Presbyterian.

How did your involvement with the Museum of Fine arts begin?

I became a docent in the early 1970s. I got to know Alan DuBois (then the assistant curator) after I read an article he wrote about photography in the St. Petersburg Times. I was really impressed and sent him a check for $500 for the photography collection he was building at the museum. I showed him photographs I had been collecting. A year or two later, I was invited onto the board of trustees, probably through Alan's influence. Lee Malone was the director. I continued to buy photographs and I would donate most of them to the museum. I started Friends of Photography there to continue the work Alan had started when he left for another job.

You had a photography gallery in the 1980s?

"I didn't intend to have a gallery. Bill (Upham, a major St. Pete Beach developer — as in Upham Beach — whom she married in 1971) gave me this storefront property he was using for writing. I put some of my pictures in it. The city said I needed a permit or license. So I called it a gallery and began organizing shows. I had it for eight years. Our daughter was about to go to college and Bill wasn't well, so closing it was a decision for our family. I was still a trustee at the museum but I didn't have a lot of time for it. Bill passed away in 1993.

So, by 1998 you felt you could devote more time to the museum?

Yes. Charles (Mackey, longtime museum president and nephew of the founder, Margaret Acheson Stuart) wanted to retire and he asked me to be president. Michael Milkovich was director at the time. We talked about expanding, but he retired (in 2001) and we had to begin a search for a new director.

John Schloder was hired in August 2001.

He had a track record for capital campaigns and he wanted the job because of our hoped-for expansion. He has done an incredible job.

Steering the museum through so many changes and dealing with a lot of egos must have been difficult at times.

I never find anything difficult. You have to do what's necessary. When I began, it was like a private club, as all museum boards seemed to be. I think I opened it up more, brought in younger people. It's important to keep the past with you while you forge ahead. When you have people who make millions of dollars, they will have their own ideas. I listen and try to be fair. Everyone has value. I'm happy that we all survived and are still friends.

You're known for your deep religious faith.

It's become more important to me in the last 30 years. It girds everything I do. It comes first and everything else follows. I wanted to write and ended up with an art gallery. I make the assumption that I'm put in a certain place and I may not be the best, but I'm here because I'm supposed to be. I have been blessed with a lot.

So, Act IV, as you call it?

I'd like to write a play. I wrote several before I got so involved with the museum. I'll continue collecting photography and I'll always be involved with the museum, just not so intensely. I'll talk to friends more and see my family more. The first thing I've done is clean out my office. I'm not going to retire and go off to live on an island. I already live on one.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Carol Upham retires from Museum of Fine Arts and looks ahead to Act IV 06/07/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 7, 2008 4:30am]

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