For bay area museums, decade brought bigger, better exhibitions and prestige

It was small physically, only 9 1/2 by 13 inches. But The Persistence of Memory, an oil painting by Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, was one of the biggest things to happen to the Salvador Dali Museum.

In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art agreed to loan it to the St. Petersburg museum, then in its 20th year. It's the most famous painting by Dali and one of MoMA's most treasured works, almost never leaving its galleries. That a museum in west-central Florida would have it for several months was a huge coup.

Area museums had had significant special exhibitions in the past but none with the academic impact of this single, historic loan.

A case can be made that our growing prominence began in 1995, the year that "Treasures of the Czars" came to St. Petersburg and attracted more than 600,000 visitors from around the world to the Florida International Museum. It was huge.

But the next show at FIM, which was supposed to come from Egypt, was a debacle, with the Egyptian government withdrawing its collection and proving that this area and one of its museums actually had very little clout. Subsequent exhibitions had varying success, and ultimately FIM couldn't sustain its reliance on expensive blockbuster exhibitions.

Though The Persistence of Memory attracted crowds, the real importance of its presence in St. Petersburg was a signal of the Dali Museum's increasing standing in the larger art world. And, the true beginning of the area's rise as a culturally significant place.

Its arrival was the result of a new policy instituted several years earlier by then-museum director Marshall Rousseau. Despite the Dali's collection, the most comprehensive in the world, its excellent attendance record and its reputation as a tourist destination, the museum had little impact in its museum peer group. Rousseau persuaded the Dali's founders, Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, to begin a vigorous program of loaning its art to other institutions, thereby cultivating relationships with major museums that would result in the kind of reciprocity leading to a loan such as MoMA's.

New models are successes

A second important occurrence early in the decade initiated a series of events that would also broaden our national and international recognition as a cultural center. In 2000 the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida's state museum, became part of Florida State University.

Despite a world-class collection of Baroque art, the Ringling had languished for decades, its budget always chopped during the legislative process. Transferring oversight to FSU meant its funding would be approved as part of the university's overall budget and less vulnerable to cuts.

But the transfer became even more significant. A year later, then-state Senate president John McKay, one of the Ringling's greatest supporters, helped push through about $42.9 million within the FSU budget for a major Ringling expansion. In 2007 a new museum wing, new administrative and education buildings, circus museum and visitors' center opened, adding 150,000 square feet to the complex. John Wetenhall, the Ringling's director, and the museum board raised an additional, astonishing $56 million in private funding for an endowment, millions more than required by the state to match its allocation. The donations came from throughout the state and nation, and again acknowledged the importance beyond our area of one of its museums.

A third important event early in the decade was the arrival of John Schloder at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in 2001, hired to raise the museum's profile and oversee the hoped-for expansion. While no individual is solely responsible for an institution's success, Schloder was the ambitious catalyst who propelled the museum forward based on new museum models being played out worldwide.

Schloder was bold in accomplishing the first charge in 2004 by organizing a large exhibition of installations by world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly. It exceeded attendance expectations and made a handsome profit. As if to counter criticism of the show's commercial rather than high art focus, he green-lighted another expensive exhibition that chief curator Jennifer Hardin wanted to organize based on the French impressionist Claude Monet. "Monet's London" opened in 2005 with 150 works, mostly paintings by major artists of the early 20th century, and a scholarly catalog. It was a financial and artistic triumph, with the midsize regional museum scoring major loans from a large group of prestigious international museums. That it also traveled to bigger and better-known museums in Brooklyn and Baltimore bolstered its reputation.

Schloder's second goal, to expand the museum footprint, was realized in 2008 when a 39,000-square-foot, $21 million addition opened, giving the museum space for larger traveling exhibitions.

Three different museums, three different gains, provided the momentum that, as the decade continued, thrust west-central Florida into greater prominence as a cultural contender in the larger sphere. Perception is everything in the clubby world of art museums, based on mutual interests, trust and, above all, the ability to leverage influence. Though commercial success is important, it's not the most important component of most relationships between top museums.

The area's three largest museums provided a backdrop for gains by other museums here, which at the decade's beginning numbered eight. Most were planning their own expansions, most significantly, one by the Tampa Museum of Art, which needed a new facility. In 2000, then-Mayor Dick Greco announced the city's commitment of $27 million to build one on its downtown site along Ashley Drive. Marquee architect Rafael Vinoly was hired to design it, with a price tag of about $44 million. In 2003 Pam Iorio was elected mayor and put the brakes on the project, concerned with its escalating cost; studies showing that once it opened, it would operate at a deficit; and controversy over Vinoly's design. Three years of squabbles between the city and museum supporters that left the museum in limbo were resolved in 2006 with an agreement for a less-expensive museum on a nearby riverfront location. It took more than 10 years, but the new, 66,000-square-foot Tampa Museum of Art, designed by San Francisco architect Stanley Saitowitz and costing $26 million, opens in early February with a great mix of special exhibitions, including one by 20th century master Henri Matisse.

So the second decade of the 21st century will begin well.

But a vibrant arts community needs many components. The other area art museums — the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum — provide us with a broad lineup. The Contemporary Art Museum, for example, under the direction of Margaret Miller, has brought in some of the best contemporary art shows seen in Florida, and she exerts influence well beyond the area.

Changes, positive and negative

This decade also saw the collapse of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in January. The reasons were multiple but the bottom line was that the community did not support it.

Nor do we have an exceptional track record in supporting art galleries. They're the marketplace of an arts community, and the variety and quality of the art they sell is a barometer of an area's cultural strength and dynamism. In 10 years, more galleries have closed than opened, and none offers works by artists with major international reputations and prices in the six figures because they don't sell here.

Yes, great gains have been made. And more are in store. A new Dali museum is rising on St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront, scheduled to open in early 2011. And leaders of the Morean Arts Center, a not-for-profit educational organization, say they are close to finalizing an arrangement that would bring a permanent collection of works by Chihuly to St. Petersburg as the first museum of its kind in the world.

Good news all. We have much to be proud of, but we still have some distance between what we are and what we should be as a thriving cultural center.

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

Defining moment:

2002, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art loans Salvador Dali's most famous painting, The Persistence of Memory, to St. Petersburg's Salvador Dali Museum.
This kicked off a decade in which the arts community
in Tampa
Bay grew in
prominence.

For bay area museums, decade brought bigger, better exhibitions and prestige 12/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 25, 2009 5:53pm]

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