LARGO — Struggling with low attendance in its out-of-the-way location, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art had been angling to move to a more visible spot in downtown Clearwater.
Instead, the 73-year-old museum abruptly closed its doors for good Monday — "a sad and disappointing end," according to a statement sent to its members.
The museum says it's out of money and options. Instead of putting its sculptures, jewelry and artwork into temporary storage, it's preparing to donate them to other museums.
"There's a lot of interest in the collection," said museum spokeswoman Lisa Brock.
The art museum has been clashing with Pinellas County officials over whether it can sell or sublease its current buildings, which it built in the county-owned Pinewood Cultural Park off Walsingham Road.
The county owns the land on which the buildings sit.
The museum has been there since 1999. It announced last summer that it would close at the end of January due to a lack of attendance and a dwindling endowment, but that it would explore moving to a new location. Its board had hoped to open a new museum by 2012.
Recently, the museum had been trying to relocate to Clearwater, into a former AmSouth Bank high-rise that's now largely vacant. The building is across the street from a historic theater that Ruth Eckerd Hall plans to turn into a performing arts center. Clearwater leaders hoped the museum could become a cornerstone of a downtown arts district.
But to keep its finances afloat, the museum had been hoping the county would buy its buildings, which include a gallery, classrooms, office and theater.
The county's Pinewood Park near Largo is also home to the Florida Botanical Gardens and Heritage Village, a collection of historical buildings.
Last summer, county leaders appeared receptive to the idea of buying the museum out. But now the county says it can't afford it.
County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said the museum has been asking for nearly $4 million for its buildings.
"We have made every effort to help them stay in business, but the county does not have $4 million to give them," Harris said. "This is the worst possible budget year for that. We're talking about laying people off."
Two appraisals put the buildings' market value at more than $5 million, according to correspondence between the museum and county officials.
If the county wouldn't buy the buildings, the museum asked for changes to its lease to allow it to sublease its buildings to a tenant or sell them to another buyer. But county staffers said that would be difficult.
"The county should show more flexibility," said Kathy Donald, a museum member for three years. "Around $8 million was donated to build those buildings, and now the county can come in and take them."
Although Clearwater leaders had hoped to see the museum move to their city, they said they couldn't afford to subsidize its day-to-day operations.
"We would consider helping them with some relocation costs, but we can't do anything unless they have some operating dollars," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "It's a shame. That museum is a hidden gem."
The museum was founded in 1936 as the "Art Section" of the Clearwater Women's Club. As it grew, it moved to Belleair in the 1940s and to its current site in the '90s. The county wooed the museum to Pinewood Cultural Park, eager to have an arts presence alongside the historical and natural attractions there.
But the location proved too remote, and the museum lost money. Its $8 million endowment shrank to about $500,000.
Now the museum's leaders must consider what to do with the sculpture garden and the permanent collection.
"It cannot be sold for profit," said Brock, the museum's spokeswoman. "Everything will be placed with accredited museums so the artwork can be enjoyed in perpetuity."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.