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Florida Holocaust Museum hires new director, focuses on strategic plan

Elizabeth Gelman is new to the Florida Holocaust Museum, but has worked with other museums, most recently the Spertus Institute in Chicago. She also is an author and playwright.
Published Feb. 26, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG

Dozens of people sought the job, but in the end, the Florida Holocaust Museum went with an all-rounder — educator, writer, nonprofit and museum professional — to fill its executive director position.

While movers have only just unpacked the boxes from her suburban Chicago home, Elizabeth Gelman has been settling into the St. Petersburg job for a few weeks.

"I think she got her feet wet between 8:30 and 9:30 the first day," board chair Marty Borell said. "She has a myriad of ideas and enthusiasm."

Gelman, 51, joins the 20-year-old institution at a crucial time. A new strategic plan emphasizes strengthening its finances, consolidating its role in the Tampa Bay area, offering high-level programs, harnessing technology and expanding its reach nationally and internationally.

"We are facing the same challenges that most museums are facing now," Gelman said. "All museums are questioning not only what it means to be a museum in the 21st century, but why are we a museum, what is our purpose?"

Being a museum that is specific to the Holocaust is challenging, she said, since survivors and their liberators are dying.

"How do we use it to reach as many people as possible while we have these amazing people?" she asked. "This place is not simply a memorial. This is relevant to where we are now."

Gelman has worked with other museums, most recently in education and development for the Spertus Institute in Chicago. She also is an author and playwright and created an interactive arts education program, "Arts Attack!"

Her hiring by the Florida Holocaust Museum was almost accidental.

"We started a national search probably in May and we did it without the help of outsiders, primarily to save on the cost and we did a very, very thorough search," Borell said.

The museum received about 100 resumes. "Of course, many of them were not qualified at all," he said.

Last June, the search committee narrowed the applicants to two, neither of which was Gelman. A consultant suggested taking a second look at some previously reviewed resumes and pointed out that she had "all the right skills, the right experience" for the position.

"We brought her in. We put her through a very informative day. It was very important for us to be very transparent," Borell said.

"Fortunately, the museum is in a good place. Most of what we had to say, she was excited about, even the challenges."

He declined to say how much Gelman is being paid, answering that "it's not the museum's policy to release salaries to the public."

According to the latest Form 990 filing with the IRS, its last executive director's salary was $70,000.

The museum, which is debt- free, recently climbed out of financial difficulties. In 2011, Whitney National Bank sued the institution for $1.6 million, plus interest, saying it had defaulted on two loans. The matter was settled last year. Museum officials said then that the financial problems stemmed from a bad economy and cuts in state and federal funding.

The museum is now focused on solidifying its finances, Borell said.

"The last few years have been difficult and we just want to make sure that we are well positioned to weather any kind economic storm," he said.

"The flip side of that is we want to maintain the highest level of programs. As we save money, we are not going to erode quality of programming."

Under recently retired executive director Carolyn Bass, the museum developed several outreach programs, including Genocide and Human Rights Awareness Month and SpeakUp SpeakNow, a program for children that works to combat a "no snitching" culture and teach civic responsibility.

Gelman is committed to continuing SpeakUp SpeakNow.

"We are actually reenergizing that program this summer. Right now, we are doing it very small and we have a funder who is very interested. My hope is to do it really well, and next year to really broaden it so it hits other areas," she said of the program, which is now limited to St. Petersburg.

Gelman said the annual summer institute for teachers also will go on. She also will work to ensure that schoolchildren continue to visit. Some schools don't qualify for Title 1 funding to help with the trips, so the museum is working to increase its funding to assist, she said.

As head of the museum at 55 Fifth St. S, Gelman's task, said Borell, also is to harness technology to make sure "that all of the ways we deliver our programs are state of the art, so if you can't come to the museum, how can the museum creatively come to you?"

The board also wants to enhance partnerships with other museums, corporations and universities, he said.

Gelman is onboard. "There is no way we should not be supporting one another and finding ways to bring people to all of our institutions," she said.

"One of my challenges is finding out how we are doing in the community. One of the things that I'm trying to do, certainly in the first six months, is to talk to as many people as I can, supporters, casual visitors … to try to figure out how well the museum has been doing its job and how we can improve on it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

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