TAMPA —When David Connelly started his job at St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1996, one of the first people he met was Mary Perry. He was struck by her energy, her vision and her passion for art.
"Mary had come up with an idea for an event called Art in Bloom," Connelly said. "It was a first-time process for all of us, and there were snags along the way, but Mary came through every time."
Ms. Perry wasn’t on the museum’s payroll. She was a member of the Margaret Acheson Stuart Society, a volunteer auxiliary group that raised money for the museum. But she worked as hard as any staff member. It was largely through her devotion and talents that Art in Bloom grew into one of the museum’s most popular annual events.
"It was like working with a colleague, not like working with a volunteer," Connelly said.
Connelly would learn through his 21 years as the museum’s director of public relations that Ms. Perry was as devoted to her friends as she was to art.
"What people found out about Mary was that once you worked with her, you became her friend," Connelly said.
She never lost her seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, even through years of caring for her late husband, physician Richard Perry.
So news of Ms. Perry’s death June 1 at age 69 surprised a lot of people in the local arts world. Authorities said she died of natural causes.
"It’s devastating," Connelly said. "I just spoke to her about a week ago."
Art in Bloom, in which floral designers create works that interpret or complement art for the museum’s collection, is the most widely known manifestation of Ms. Perry’s influence on the local art scene, and it is the one that most captures the essence of her personality, friends said.
"She loved things of beauty, both in the natural world and in art," Michael Bennett said. "She tended orchids with the same passion that she collected art."
Like Connelly, Bennett met Ms. Perry through his museum work and became a lifelong friend, traveling with the Perrys through Europe on more than one occasion. Bennett is the Museum of Fine Arts’ curator of early western art, but he met Ms. Perry when he was at the Tampa Museum of Art. She was equally involved with both museums.
Through her connections at the two museums, Ms. Perry helped devise Bridging the Bay, an ongoing series of events designed to bring patrons, supporters and audiences from the museums together.
"What we learned through Bridging the Bay that there were a lot of supporters of the Tampa Museum who had seldom visited the (Museum of Fine Arts), and vice versa," Connelly said. "Mary was the type of person who would say ‘We should be cooperating, not competing.’ "
She was a trustee of the Tampa museum and devoted herself to establishing an endowment to help pay for acquisitions.
With the Margaret Acheson Stuart Society, she organized a fashion show featuring designs by Valentino to raise money for the museum. It was the first Valentino show in this area.
She also became involved with the St. Petersburg museum’s Collectors Circle, which acquires works. For the Collectors Circle’s 10th anniversary, she led a drive to acquire the museum’s first painting by American impressionist Childe Hassam. Connelly said it’s one of the most expensive paintings in the museum’s collection. The museum does not reveal prices.
She leaves behind a son, Richard G. Said, and many others whose lives she touched in ways unrelated to the art world.
"Mary was a passionate person, a very passionate person who was fully engaged in life, in her relationships with her friends and family and the community," Bennett said. "She was fiercely loyal, and she was very generous with her time. It was extremely invigorating to be in her presence.
"I just have to say that it is deeply shocking to live in a post-Mary world. That is the way I feel, and I think a lot of people share that sentiment."
Brett Funeral Home is handling arrangements for Ms. Perry. As of Thursday, no memorial service had been scheduled.