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Florida International Museum shutting after 54 exhibitions in downtown St. Petersburg

A museum's demise is always a sad thing. It says something about the community and what it values. When the Florida International Museum closes in December, it will take a big chunk of local history with it as well. The final show, "Thanks for the Memories," reminds us how much was gained — and then lost — during the museum's roller-coaster ride since its spectacular opening in 1995 with "Treasures of the Czars." The show is divided into three sections that, neatly, span about five years each: the early blockbuster era when the museum was open for six months every year, the switch to a year-round schedule with many smaller, rotating shows, and the move to a new space at St. Petersburg College's downtown campus. There's also a photo display of the building's first life as Maas Brothers Department Store, which was a downtown anchor for more than four decades until, after its own sad decline, it closed in 1991.

Backward looks often generate two conflicting impulses: a recognition that the past is immutable and a desire to speculate about how things might have been different. This show triggers both.

Only publicity materials, memorabilia and a few old gift shop items remain from the first shows, and they're a little melancholy when we remember the exhibitions' opulence. But they're enough to return us to that giddy time when downtown St. Petersburg woke up after years of economic slumber. More than 600,000 people came to see "Treasures of the Czars." An economic impact study reported that it generated $34 million for the community. History was made.

Numbers can be exhilarating, but they can also be a splash of cold reality. The truth is that the museum had millions of dollars of debt for most of those years.

The cost of assembling the shows was too high, and the glamor factor after "Czars" — essentially two antiquities shows, hard sells with no King Tut allure — too low. Still, it's hard to believe that "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" in 1996 was considered a failure because it drew only 300,000 visitors. The Dale Chihuly exhibition of glass sculptures at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2005 was a triumph with about 170,000, a record for that institution. But "Splendors" needed to sell 40 percent more tickets than it did to break even, so it failed.

Despite its fragile finances, Florida International Museum was an important symbol for the city's revival, and for many years a failure of the museum itself, despite money-losing shows, was unthinkable to many civic leaders. Private and public money would continue to keep it afloat and loans forgiven during its history.

In late 1997, the museum got a big break. "Titanic" opened with salvaged items from the sunken ship, set into beautifully appointed galleries. It probably would have been a successful show in any event. But Titanic, the movie, opened a few weeks later, in mid December. We all know what a hit that was. And it gave an astonishing boost to the St. Petersburg exhibition. When the show closed in June 1998, it registered attendance of more than 830,000, finally putting the museum in the black with a $3 million profit. There are no pieces from that show in the final exhibition, either, but segments on national TV shows touting it are looped on a monitor to bring back the immense interest it generated nationally.

The "Titanic" bump was a blip, an incredible stroke of good luck and timing that couldn't be repeated. "Empires of Mystery: The Incas, Andes and Lost Civilizations" the next year, with some of the finest pre-Columbian artifacts known to exist, tried to borrow some Indiana Jones mojo to pique interest. Its attendance of almost 179,000 would, in any other scenario, be lauded. But the show needed almost twice those numbers to break even. Another miss.

The problem wasn't just the huge cost to ship and insure the items. The building, at nearly 300,000 square feet, had about two-thirds more space than the museum used or needed. It was expensive to maintain year-round when it was in use only half that time. And it didn't generate enough of that vital collateral revenue from gift shop sales.

Museum leaders realized that reliance on the blockbuster model was not viable. Unlike most other museums that found them successful, Florida International Museum had no great permanent collection of its own to use as a base for such shows and as a bargaining chip that is the quid pro quo for most major art loans. Diversity and modest scale became the new philosophy in its schedule.

In 2000, Florida International Museum became a Smithsonian affiliate, giving it access to the many traveling shows that institution organizes annually. It switched to a year-round schedule with more small, rotating shows. Two long-term exhibitions were installed, one with memorabilia from John F. Kennedy's presidential years and another about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred during his term.

The variety of rotating shows crossed all demographics, from tasteful displays of antique fans to a kitchy collection of Barbie dolls, from vintage motorcycles to National Portrait Gallery photographs. The displays commemorating that period in the museum's history are a bit more expansive, with a 1942 military police motorcycle and a case full of "Around the World" Barbies, for example (though none of them were in the original shows).

"Diana, A Celebration" was the final exhibition in the old building, featuring personal possessions, photographs and clothes belonging to the late princess of Wales that were assembled by her brother, Charles Spencer. Its attendance was a respectable 80,000, but that was not enough to keep the place open.

In 2005, the Florida International Museum moved to a building next door owned by St. Petersburg College, which had established a small downtown campus. It occupied 9,000 square feet on the first floor that was converted to gallery space. Again, it filled its schedule with an eclectic assortment. "The Beatles" was followed by "Ink and Blood" with 100 rare Bibles and religious artifacts. Fancy jewelry was juxtaposed with "The Story of Dogs."

The most successful show in the museum's new home was "Vatican Splendors" in 2008, with about 100,000 visitors. It finished in the black, but the museum was running out of steam. It didn't have an exhibition for a year after "Splendors" closed in May 2008.

In May 2009, Florida International Museum featured the permanent collection of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art. The museum had closed in 2008 and the St. Petersburg College Foundation had taken ownership of the art. College officials said some would be put in storage and some would be displayed in college buildings around the county, but this would likely be the last time for a long time it would be seen intact.

There was both poignancy and irony in seeing the vestiges of one failed museum on the walls of another that appeared to be on the brink of the same fate. And the "international" part of its name seemed another bit of pathos and irony.

There was speculation that the college would house the Gulf Coast Museum collection permanently in that downtown space. The college was mulling its options. It was obligated to keep the museum open only through 2010 under terms of a renovation grant it had received. The campus was growing and needed more classrooms. And the college already had a museum, the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art on its Tarpon Springs campus.

In July, the college announced that the Florida International Museum would be shuttered for good and the space would eventually become classrooms. Two more shows were scheduled, one of quilts by contemporary artists and another of period costumes used in recent movies.

The meatiest part of this exhibition has examples from those last shows: art from the Gulf Coast Museum collection, quilts borrowed from local craftsmen and, because the museum was storing the movie costumes before shipping them to their next venue, a few of those.

"Thanks for the Memories" is, by the way, free, a first for a museum that made and lost millions.

Through 15 years, 54 exhibitions and more than 2.5 million visitors (mostly during its first four years), Florida International Museum can claim only two spectacular successes, "Treasures of the Czars" and "Titanic," if we use the measure for success the museum itself applied for years.

So was everything else a failure?

No. The museum had some excellent exhibitions and more that were just fine, a typical balance at most museums.

The Florida International Museum's real failure was in unmet expectations, probably expectations that were set too high from the beginning and were never questioned enough once "Treasures of the Czars" got rolling. And, perhaps, too much pride and too little pragmatism from its early leaders.

In the end, it became more a community museum, not living up to the promise of its name and without a clear vision of its mission. Maybe its demise was inevitable, based as it was on such an all-or-nothing premise. But that's speculation. The Florida International Museum will be history by the new year. Which means, historically, what's done is done.

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

.if you go

Thanks for the Memories

The show is at Florida
International Museum at St. Petersburg College,
244 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg, through Dec. 4. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Free. (727) 341-7904 or
spcollege.edu/fimuseum.

Florida International Museum shutting after 54 exhibitions in downtown St. Petersburg 11/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 10:58am]

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