The closing Monday of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, a 73-year-old community institution, became a sad chapter in the history of North Pinellas. Money problems contributed to its demise, but perhaps most damaging was the museum's lack of visibility.
It is interesting to speculate about whether the outcome would have been different if museum officials had made other location choices in the past and if Clearwater voters had not slammed the door on the museum during the early 1990s.
For many years, the museum, known then as the Belleair Art Center, was located on a residential street in tony Belleair. It was a busy place, with more of an emphasis on teaching art than hosting large exhibitions. Serious artists from throughout Florida attended classes or taught there, but it was also a place where kids could get lessons.
The nonprofit art center wanted to expand so it could teach more people and host more exhibitions, but the neighbors didn't want more traffic on their street. So officials began looking elsewhere.
The spot they dreamed of was on the Clearwater downtown bayfront, where the former Maas Brothers department store stood. The city of Clearwater had purchased the aging store and 3.8 acres of land overlooking Clearwater Harbor, and the city was interested in selling about half the property — just the land on which the old store sat — for $750,000 to the art center, which changed its name to the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center.
The art community was excited, and so were city officials, who envisioned a busy art center and museum on the highly visible corner overlooking a planned expansion of Coachman Park. Art center officials planned to tear down the monolithic Maas building and build a new $7 million facility with underground parking, studios and classrooms, exhibition galleries, a museum store and a 500-seat community room. They promised to sponsor art festivals that would spill into the park, and evening events that would bring people downtown.
In a 1992 referendum, Clearwater voters said no.
A group called Save the Bayfront campaigned against the plan, and one of its leaders, Fred Thomas, funded a mailing to residents that said city officials were attempting to "Give Away the Bayfront!" The sale to the art center was defeated by more than 2,000 votes.
Spurned by Clearwater residents, the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center began a search for other locations. They considered locating in what was then being developed as Largo Central Park. Today, of course, that park is a beautiful centerpiece of Largo, and big crowds attend events held there.
But instead of Largo Central Park, the art center officials chose to build the new Gulf Coast Museum of Art on a wooded county-owned site off Walsingham Road west of Largo. Some questioned the out-of-the-way location, but then-director Ken Rollins knew the county planned several facilities nearby, including a botanical garden and expansions of Heritage Park and Walsingham Park. He was optimistic when the museum opened in 1999, believing people would find it.
But not enough of them did, and last summer, as financial challenges were magnified by the declining economy, the museum board began planning to move to a more visible location, hoping to attract more attention, visitors and donations.
They were negotiating to build a new museum on Clearwater's Cleveland Street, and even had hope of some limited financial assistance from the city. But the deal hinged on the county buying the museum's buildings, or at least allowing the museum to sell or sublet its buildings to someone else. The county said it didn't have the money to buy the buildings, and it refused to change the lease terms to allow the museum to sell or lease to someone else.
On Monday, museum officials pulled the plug. They closed the museum and announced that its collection would be donated to other accredited museums.
Millions of dollars were donated to build the museum. Now, its doors will be locked. The classrooms will be empty. Nothing will hang on the walls of the galleries. The polished floors will collect dust and there will be no echo of footsteps in the hallways.
The county and museum officials ought to talk about a way the public can utilize at least the classroom space at the museum — perhaps for classes taught by the nearby Pinellas County Extension Service or St. Petersburg College.
The demise of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art is one more indication that though the nation's economy will improve someday, many impacts of the current crisis will be permanent.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is [email protected]