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  1. Life & Culture

Carol Upham, lifetime honorary trustee of Museum of Fine Arts, dies in St. Petersburg

She was the museum’s first female board president and expanded its photography collection.
Carol Upham in 2008 at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, shortly after she retired as president of the museum's board.
Carol Upham in 2008 at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, shortly after she retired as president of the museum's board. [ PENDYGRAFT, JOHN | Times ]
Published Dec. 31, 2020

Carol Upham was known for many contributions to St. Petersburg. At the core of it all was her unshakable faith.

The avid photography collector and beloved lifetime honorary trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg died at her home in St. Petersburg on Dec. 24. She was 86.

Born Carol Ann Curotto in Chicago in 1934, she moved to St. Pete Beach from Highland Park, Ill., with her family in 1950. Her parents, Gladys and William Curotto, opened the Bon-Aire Motel (now the Bon-Aire Resort) in 1953.

Mrs. Upham returned to the Midwest to attend Northwestern University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English composition and a minor in French in 1957. She continued her education in New York, Switzerland and St. Petersburg, where she studied clinical psychology at Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College).

Writing was her first passion and after college she worked as a copy editor for publishing companies Crowell-Collier, Macmillan Company, and Grolier, Inc., and for George E. Sokolsky, the King Features syndicated columnist.

In the 1950s, on a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a photography exhibition called “The Family of Man” hooked Mrs. Upham on the medium. She told the Times in 2008, “I was working for a publishing house at the time after college. It just blew me away. The idea of photography as a personal interest began there. I began learning the craft of photography and forming my own collection.”

Form a collection, indeed. She spent her life collecting photography and works of art in other mediums.

Mrs. Upham returned to St. Petersburg in the 1960s to help her father with the motel. She practiced photography in her spare time.

She married William W. Upham, the first mayor and incorporator of St. Pete Beach who at one time owned Upham Beach, in 1973. They later had a daughter, Mary Ann. She also had a step-son, William Kennedy Upham, and a step-daughter, Natalie Roberts.

Mrs. Upham’s love of art led her to the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg in the 1970s as a docent. After reading an article about photography by the museum’s then-assistant curator Alan DuBois, she approached him with a check for the photography collection he was building.

By 1980, she was invited onto the board of trustees. She founded the Friends of Photography collector group after DuBois’ departure, and made efforts to dispel the notion that photography wasn’t a fine art. Over the years, Upham donated more than 130 works of photography to the museum.

During her more than 30-year involvement with the museum, she was a charter member of the Collector’s Circle and chaired the Accessions Committee.

Almost by fluke, in the 1980s, she opened a gallery on Corey Avenue in St. Pete Beach. It was a storefront that her husband owned where she would retreat to write. She hung art on the walls and people started asking to come in. Upham Gallery was born, showcasing the work of local and national artists. It was open for eight years.

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Mrs. Upham exhibited her own work in art shows, including one at Florida Presbyterian College.

Mary Ann Will, Upham’s only biological child, described a childhood full of visiting the MFA and growing up in the gallery with her mother. Upham shared her passion for photography with her daughter, even building a dark room in their house.

Will described her mother as a very independent person who was determined, bright, humble and always got the job done. She said that Upham had a keen sense of humor and was always dressed to the nines.

Carol Upham and her daughter, Mary Ann Will, heading out to an event at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Upham died on Dec. 24, 2020.
Carol Upham and her daughter, Mary Ann Will, heading out to an event at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Upham died on Dec. 24, 2020. [ Courtesy of Mary Ann Will ]

“I’ve learned confidence, grace and independence from her,” she said. Mrs. Upham also inspired her to create a career in art. She’s now a part-time graphic designer for Florida Trend magazine.

Will said that her mother loved to travel to Aspen, Colo., and New York, and to take her grandchildren to Disney.

Carol Upham with her grandchildren, Benjamin and Emily Will. Upham died on Dec. 24, 2020.
Carol Upham with her grandchildren, Benjamin and Emily Will. Upham died on Dec. 24, 2020. [ Courtesy of Mary Ann Will ]

Mrs. Upham was also active in many other organizations. She was a trustee of the Palladium, Eckerd College Library (advisory board), Canterbury School of Florida, Keswick Christian School, St. Anthony’s Foundation, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Community Action Stops Abuse, Young Life and more. .

She served on the committee to Save the Don Cesar and was nominated for Woman of the Year by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce in 2002.

Mrs. Upham was also active in Christian organizations and missionaries locally and internationally.

Will said that despite all her involvements, family always came first. But she loved giving back and considered it a sense of duty compelled by her deep faith in Christianity.

Mrs. Upham told the Times of her faith in 2008: “It’s become more important to me in the past 30 years. It girds everything I do. It comes first and everything else follows.”

In 1998, she succeeded Charles Mackey, whose family founded the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, as president of the board of trustees. She was previously the board’s treasurer and vice president. Mrs. Upham was the first woman to hold the position of president and only the fourth in the museum’s history.

During her tenure, she oversaw the museum’s $21-million expansion that built the Hough Wing and included 7,000 square feet of gallery space, a cafe and the museum store. It was completed in 2008. The bridge connecting the original wing to the Hough Wing is named for her.

Carol A. Upham on the bridge named for her at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Upham died on Dec. 24, 2020.
Carol A. Upham on the bridge named for her at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Upham died on Dec. 24, 2020. [ Courtesy of Mary Ann Will ]

Mrs. Upham hired former Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg director John Schloder in 2001 and the pair worked together to fundraise on the capital campaign for the museum’s expansion. Schloder said she was the main reason he took the position, because of her dedication to growing the museum and her kindness.

Museum of Fine Arts Board of Trustees President Carol Upham, left, and Director John Schloder, right, walk through the museum's Hough Wing when it was  under construction in 2008.
Museum of Fine Arts Board of Trustees President Carol Upham, left, and Director John Schloder, right, walk through the museum's Hough Wing when it was under construction in 2008. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

He described her as a “real leader” and credited her with not only expanding the museum’s photography collection, but also Contemporary and Asian art holdings.

Schloder said she was extremely composed, even under pressure. And persuasive, which he attributes to the success of the fundraising campaign.

“No one could refuse her when she came at with you at that smile,” he said, referring to her ever-present facial expression.

Mrs. Upham was committed to the idea of a museum as an institution of education, Schloder said, and believed in public programs. She established an educational partnership between the museum and local schools.

David Connelly, who was the museum’s director of marketing from 1996-2017, echoed the notion that Mrs. Upham led the museum by example “in her own quiet and determined way.”

He described a friendly rapport between staff and trustees during the era when Mrs. Upham was president.

“That kind of approach makes you more dedicated to an institution,” he said. “It was a privilege to work with and to know her.”

Mrs. Upham served as president until 2008, when she retired. She was elected as a Lifetime Honorary Trustee in 2011 and retired from the board completely that year. She was a Lifetime Member of the Margaret Acheson Stuart Society and a Legacy Society member.

Later in life, Upham moved from her home in St. Pete Beach to a condo downtown, right across from the museum, another sign of her lifelong commitment.

In the past three years, she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which kept her from being active. The disease progressed over the summer. She died at her home on Christmas Eve, with her daughter by her side.

Will said that she will keep her mother’s legacy alive at the museum. She’s joined the Stuart Society and is in talks with them about a tribute to her mother.

Carol A. Upham

Born: Sept. 10, 1934

Died: Dec. 24, 2020

Survivors: Mary Ann Will (daughter), Emily Will and Benjamin Will (grandchildren), Natalie Roberts (stepdaughter), Cathy Grace and Missy Curotto (nieces) and Bill Curotto and Tony Curotto (nephews).

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Gathering Church, 4400 Shore Acres Blvd., St. Petersburg, or to the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE.

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