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Master at harnessing an art museum's potential

(ran State / Suncoast edition of Metro & State)

After a helicopter dropped him off in the Vietnamese jungle, Navy Lt. Ken Rollins took a Swift boat to his destination: a three-story, olive green barge.

He was to help lead 133 men deep into the Mekong Delta. That was where Rollins made an unusual decision.

"As we rounded the bend and I saw this barge I was going to live on for a year," he recalled, "I promised myself if I were to survive, I would go back to school and study art."

After losing four of his men in combat, Rollins left the Navy and kept his promise. He earned his master's degree in sculpture and ceramics at the University of Tennessee. Eventually, he chose a career path that took him to the administration side of the business.

He was so successful, Rollins, executive director of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, has been given the Florida Association of Museums Lifetime Achievement Award.

Among his accomplishments:

+ In the 1980s, he took a pretty little art collection in a converted Publix supermarket in Lakeland and turned it into a first-rate museum.

+ A decade later, he took another largely unnoticed cache of artwork in Belleair and transformed it into the Gulf Coast Museum of Art.

"There is nothing more gratifying than being recognized by your peers," Rollins said. "I'm truly honored and humbled by it."

The award is given to selected Florida museum directors who have served the profession for 25 years or more.

"Ken's played an incredible role in the museum profession statewide and nationally," said Malinda Horton, executive director of the Florida Association of Museums.

Horton was forced to postpone the award presentation because of the extensive damage Hurricane Ivan caused museums in the Panhandle. She hopes to reschedule the event soon.

Rollins was nominated by Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry director Wit Ostrenko, who cited his skills as a leader, growth specialist, program developer and art educator. "Ken creates a community around his art museum," Ostrenko wrote on the nomination form.

Emily Kass, director of the Tampa Museum of Art, said she can't think of anyone who deserves the award more.

"He is thoughtful, caring outstanding," she said. "He's made such a difference in the museums and the community."

Quinton C. "Ken" Rollins was born 62 years ago in South Carolina. He liked art, and was always making things as a child.

His father moved the family to Tampa in 1960, and Rollins enrolled in the charter class of the University of South Florida.

Rollins earned a bachelor's in liberal arts and enrolled in the University of North Carolina law school. He dropped out after realizing he did not like endless hours of research.

He returned to USF and began a job organizing programs for students. But hanging over his head was his draft lottery number. It was low.

So he applied for Navy Officers Candidate School in Rhode Island and went to war.

After graduating with a classmate named John Kerry 36 years ago, Rollins found himself flying into Saigon in a pink airplane with comedian Martha Raye, who was cracking jokes along the way.

"It was the psychedelic era, and I thought, how surreal," he said.

He never crossed paths with his old friend Kerry, now the Democratic presidential candidate.

He married a weaver and had a son, Noah, now a Harvard graduate and Boston-based architect.

On a pig farm outside Knoxville, Tenn., he settled down and began to make art.

Soon he realized he was not making enough money, so he took a job as assistant director of the DeLand Museum of Art. After a year, he became its executive director.

From there he served as executive director of the Polk Museum of Art for 12 years, taking it from a small operation to a world-class facility.

"I built a reputation as a Mr. Fix-it," Rollins said.

In the early 1990s, he was lured to Pinellas County to do some consulting on the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, then located in Belleair.

Under his guiding hand, the museum opened a 45,000-square-foot facility in Pinewood Cultural Park, generated a $4-million endowment, achieved accreditation by the American Association of Museums and established a visual arts teaching program with St. Petersburg College.

It also built a prime collection of contemporary Florida art and Southeastern fine crafts.

Along the way, Rollins worked in terms as president of the Florida Art Museum Directors Association and chairman of the Florida Association of Museums Foundation.

His heart, however, remains at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art.

"I'm a trained studio artist," Rollins said. "But I don't work anymore. All the sweat and juices go into running this place."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schultesptimes.com.

As its executive director, Ken Rollins has helped the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo build an impressive collection and reputation for outstanding exhibits like the one behind him that is currently on display.

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