Before 1982, St. Petersburg had no connection, and no reason for one, to Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí.
Before 1991, it had a museum with his work that was unaccredited and struggled to keep an executive director and turn a profit.
Then, T. Marshall Rousseau arrived.
Now, the Dalí Museum is as much a destination as Tampa Bay’s beaches. More than 320,000 visited the Dalí between the summers of 2021 and 2022. The museum reported that it loaned art to museums in South Korea, Vienna and Norway. And it recently hosted a Picasso exhibit.
“However it has happened,” Rousseau told the Tampa Bay Times in 2002, “we now have a reputation that extends throughout the world. It’s significant for us and for the city.”
Rousseau was one of the people who made that happen. And helping the Dalí thrive wasn’t his first or his last feat.
“He was a connector,” said Michelle Detweiler, a family friend and president and CEO of Parc Center for Disabilities. “He connected people.”
Rousseau wasn’t, by trade, an art guy. But his ability to connect people, institutions and communities benefited Tampa Bay and beyond, including the Florida Orchestra, the Dalí, Eckerd College and the John and Mable Ringling Museum.
“He was just somebody that every single thing he got involved with, it flourished,” said friend Kerry Helinger.
Rousseau died Oct. 12 of a heart attack. He was 89.
Here are some of the places he made better.
Robinson’s of Florida
Before becoming part of the art world, “he loved the ad world,” said friend and colleague Tina Rondolino Douglass. “He loved trying to get people interested.”
Rousseau moved to St. Petersburg in the early 1970s to serve as the vice president of marketing for a new line of department stores, Robinson’s of Florida.
Helinger was just starting out in his career when he met Rousseau.
“He treated me like I was his equal as opposed to some salesman trying to sell him something.”
And once Rousseau made a friend, in work or outside of it, he didn’t let them go. Rondolino Douglass worked with him at Robinson’s, the Dalí and the Ringling.
“What was unique about Marshall was that he wanted to be part of the community,” she said.
At Robinson’s, Rousseau started the National Scholastic Arts awards program with Scholastic Magazine, which invited area students to submit artwork and earn scholarships. He also started a project that, throughout his life, would remain a favorite: Robinson’s Christmas Angel program.
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Rousseau’s idea was to display cardboard angels designed to reflect the signature wrapping paper and decorated by residents and clients of Parc, which was a Robinson’s neighbor, and other agencies like it.
Customers bought an angel each year, and the money earned went back to the participating organizations.
Detweiler, whose dad ran Parc before her, remembers going to Robinson’s as a kid to pick out an angel.
“He brought a lot of people to this organization,” she said.
And he was just getting started.
Rousseau knew change was coming to Robinson’s — and it eventually did when it was bought by the May Company and later sold.
In 1986, he became the executive director of the Florida Orchestra.
“Rousseau didn’t have an orchestra background and became president during troubled times,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 1991. But the ad man knew business and he knew how to connect people, including management and striking musicians.
Next, he recruited retailers for the Bay Plaza development, then briefly took a job selling books at Barnes and Noble, Rondolino Douglass says, “because he loved books so much. He loved talking to people about books.”
But soon, big art beckoned again.
Rousseau, who was the co-chair of the Dalí when it opened and remained on the board, was hired as director in 1991. There, he did what he’d done in every place else he worked – he focused on the business by adding custom merchandise, he created ways for the community to be part of the museum and for the museum to be part of the community through annual galas, student awards programs and by launching a club for young professionals. Rousseau also soothed relations between the owners of the collection and the art world.
During his tenure, the museum got accreditation, started lending its work out to other museums and bringing in pieces from other artists.
Rousseau retired in 2002 at 70, but, again, he didn’t stay still for long.
Next, Rousseau taught at Eckerd College, where he became a professor of museum studies.
“Marshall was working always quietly behind the scenes to ensure that people in this community were aware of the arts,” Rondolino Douglass said.
Then, in 2009, he was named interim director of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota.
“This is a temporary job,” he told the Times then.
Rousseau stayed in the role for 22 months.
In 2021, he was given the Individual Impact Award for a lifetime of contributions, including serving on the boards of several arts organizations, by Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts.
In his personal life, Rousseau took lessons in piano and French, collected art and was never without a Montblanc pen and a small leather notebook. He recently moved to St. Louis to be near family and was planning a talk there on the artwork of Dalí.
“I think every company and every individual has to be involved with something outside of themselves,” Rousseau told the Times in 1984 when he was appointed to the Florida Arts Council. “It just makes life worthwhile.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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