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Gulf Coast Arts Museum plan piques Clearwater's interest

CLEARWATER — Nothing pains an art lover like a museum forced to close its doors.

But in Clearwater, city officials are pleasantly intrigued by news that the Gulf Coast Arts Museum is shutting down its facility near Largo on Jan. 30.

They're intrigued because the museum's long-range plan is to find a new location in or near Clearwater. This comes at a time when Clearwater officials have been looking for ways to beef up cultural offerings to residents and tourists.

"I definitely think that is something we all need to be looking into," City Council member John Doran said of the prospect of bringing the museum to Clearwater. Some studies have shown great economic benefits to cities that embrace the arts scene, he said.

"Culture seems to be the hot topic today and it seems to add to the vitality," he said.

The museum began in 1936 in Belleair. In the early 1990s, a plan to put the museum on Clearwater's waterfront at the site of the current Harborview Center was turned down by voters. The museum instead moved in 1996 to county-owned property near Largo.

But the location off Walsingham Road has proved too remote to attract an adequate number of visitors, museum officials say. Board members are studying how to find a new location. But board president David Barshel said even if things go well, it's anticipated that the museum will remain closed for a time, with its collection placed in storage.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard met recently with museum executive director Michelle Turman and discussed several possible locations for a Clearwater art museum. They included the Harborview Center and land on Osceola Avenue across from the city's main library that formerly housed the offices of the Colliers Arnold real estate firm. Both of those plans would call for demolishing an existing building and constructing a new one.

Hibbard said he also suggested renovating South Ward Elementary School, which closed this year because of declining enrollment in the school system.

But Hibbard was careful to stress that all this is just in the talking stages.

"It's purely explorative. It's not the greatest economic times. More or less the question was, would Clearwater like to see the museum here? And I think we would. That being said, do they have the financial resources to relocate?"

Both Hibbard and council member George Cretekos said they did not envision the city subsidizing the museum's operation. But the prospect of bringing the art collection to Clearwater still is worthy of study, they said.

"I look at the success other communities have had with museums, most notably St. Petersburg," Cretekos said. "It just gives us tremendous opportunities."

Barshel said the board is now preparing to study the possible new locations and develop a fundraising strategy for moving. A big part of the finances rests on how much the county might pay the museum for its current building, which the museum built on county-owned land.

Gulf Coast Arts Museum plan piques Clearwater's interest 08/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 3:03pm]

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