Struggling Gulf Coast Museum of Art to close

Wandering Spirit, a work by John Henry, sits outside the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo. The museum has suffered low attendance and failure to bring in new shows with big names.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Wandering Spirit, a work by John Henry, sits outside the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo. The museum has suffered low attendance and failure to bring in new shows with big names.

LARGO — Plagued by low attendance and a dwindling endowment, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art is closing as of Jan. 30.

But in closing the facility, leaders hope they can save the museum, said executive director Michelle Turman.

For nearly a decade, the museum has been in a relatively remote spot off Walsingham Road in Largo.

"We are losing money by staying in that location," she said, and the plan is to explore a new location, new mission, even a new name. Officials hope to open a new museum by 2012.

Gulf Coast Museum opened in Pinewood Cultural Park in 1999. The campus is also home to Heritage Village, a collection of historical buildings, and the Florida Botanical Gardens.

The museum began in 1936 as the Belleair Arts Center. Turman said its major support has always been from the Clearwater area. In the 1990s, leaders decided to expand its scope and size by becoming a museum. When no viable Clearwater site was found, the institution moved to Largo because the county, which owns the Pinewood land, was eager to have an arts presence in the mix with historical and natural attractions.

But it was never a good fit, and the museum has struggled from the beginning with poor attendance, largely due to its out-of-the-way site and its failure to bring in shows with big names or broad appeal.

Turman became its director in 2006 after the Gulf Coast Museum's founding director, Ken Rollins, left to become the interim director of the Tampa Museum of Art. He is now retired.

Turman introduced more commercially successful shows such as one featuring photographer Clyde Butcher, reinstituted its children's camps, added adult art classes and opened a cafe. The changes increased revenue 87 percent, she said, and membership has doubled to 850. But none of it has been enough.

"Since day one, the endowment has been used for operations," she said. Last year, half of its $1-million budget came from that endowment, which has shrunk from $8-million when the museum opened to about $500,000 today. By trimming expenses and salaries, she has reduced the budget by about a third but said she and the board of directors concluded that there would be no major turnaround for the museum as long as it stays where it is.

"We are debt-free now," said David Barshel, president of the board. "Our alternative is to go into debt, and what is the point of that?"

The museum owns the facility, which includes a gallery, classrooms, administration building and small theater auditorium, but the county owns the land on which they sit.

"I think the county can use the buildings for Heritage Village and the Gardens," said county Commissioner Robert Stewart. "We will study it and — in time, I hope — come up with a purchase price so it's a win-win for the county and the museum."

Turman will continue in her job, but most of the 15 full- and part-time staff members have been told their jobs will end when the building closes.

Both Turman and Barshel said preliminary talks with current and potential donors indicate that the museum will probably move to Clearwater.

"So far, we have had no negative response to the idea of moving," Turman said. "When people looked beyond the closing, they got excited. We will have the luxury of time for strategic planning, to build consensus."

Ironically, the museum's final show in Largo will probably be its most popular, a midcareer retrospective of painter Christopher Still.

"We want to go out on a high note," Turman said, "and demonstrate what we can be in the future."

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

Struggling Gulf Coast Museum of Art to close 08/28/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 10:38pm]

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