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The art of fundraising

Jim Ferman Jr., head of Ferman Motor Car Co., takes on the job of raising money for a new building for the Tampa Museum of Art.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 12, 2002

OLD HYDE PARK -- Jim Ferman Jr. admits he wasn't looking for another project.

Between running Ferman Motor Car Co., sitting on boards and attending charity events, he had more than enough to do.

Besides, he already pulled $20-million out of pockets for the Florida Aquarium.

Wasn't that enough?

Apparently not.

When the Tampa Museum of Art asked him to lead its fund-raising drive for a new building, he couldn't say no.

He didn't want to.

Ferman, 58, may have cars in his blood, but the arts are in his soul. He and his wife, Cecelia, collect art and give generously to cultural causes.

It's a penchant that evolved.

"I wasn't a 14-year-old who had a passion for the arts. I was into sports cars," he says with a toothy grin. "It gradually developed over time."

Ferman's travels have taken him to museums around the world. Every time he visits a new city, the first thing he does is look up the art museum. Great cities have great museums, he says. Not-so-good cities, well, they need better museums.

Ferman considers the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the "most exciting." And Tampa's? Closest to his heart.

Ferman has high hopes for the new building, which breaks ground in January. So far, he likes what he sees from architect Rafael Vinoly.

Even the loved and loathed canopy?

"I'm confident the architect has the ability to produce the structure," said Ferman, a man of carefully chosen words.

A fourth-generation Tampa resident, Ferman takes heart in preserving history.

He lives in the same house he grew up in in Old Hyde Park and has a huge circle of longtime friends. His favorite Saturday night often involves dinner with them. His wife rules the kitchen. He mans the grill.

Ferman gravitates toward artists from Florida and Georgia, where he attended Emory University. His office on Kennedy Boulevard boasts artwork by landscape painter Susan Dauphinee and photographer Clyde Butcher. Three wood turned bowls from the couple's 40-piece collection adorn the lobby.

The building itself is an architectural gem. Ferman Motors spent $1.5-million restoring the 1920s printing house, earning Tampa Preservation Inc.'s respected Silk Purse award in 1999. He had a say in every photo, painting and piece of art.

A Plant High School graduate, Ferman remembers when the current museum opened along the banks of the Hillsborough River in 1979. It was a grand place that served the city well.

Today, its allure has dimmed. It's too small for a city Tampa's size and lacks the facilities to attract must-see exhibits.

"It doesn't make a statement," he says.

Like many museum supporters, Ferman sees the new building as an opportunity to boost Tampa's image. Business executives "expect" cities to have a heart and soul.

As head of the capital campaign, Ferman wants to raise $47-million in donations over the next few years to match the city's $27-million contribution and build a hefty endowment fund for artwork and traveling exhibits.

It's an ambitious goal, but one he's confident the community will meet.

The product speaks for itself, he says.

Ferman has some big names working at his side. The steering committee reads like a who's who list of Tampa's top philanthropists, including Norma Gene Lykes Burr, Carol Morsani and Erika Wallace. Members such as Hal Flowers, Barbara Romano and Jeanne Winter bring museum experience.

Putting Ferman at the helm seemed natural, said Jeff Tucker, museum chairman and committee member.

"He knows how to do the job," Tucker said. "He's a proven commodity."

The group plans to get the campaign rolling in the next few months, after putting together a pitch. Ferman assures there'll be no arm-twisting or hard-selling.

Just lots of one-on-one meetings and small-group presentations.

Translation: If Ferman asks you to lunch, bring a checkbook.

"You don't get $5-million contributions because you have a Web site or a newsletter," he says. "You've got to work for them."

The committee is seeking contributions large and small, with an emphasis, of course, on the large. Ferman would be elated, but not surprised, he says, if someone ponies up $10-million. He wants everyone to feel a sense of ownership, from the millionaire to minimum-wage worker.

The committee will hit up Tampa institutions -- such as Tampa Electric Co. and Bank of Tampa, of which Ferman serves as board chairman -- as well as up-and-coming businesses. There'll be some dusting off of old donor lists, but not much. A lot of wealth has moved to the area, he says.

Ferman sees the project as more payback for the community's 100-plus years of support.

But he doesn't expect to get off easy. In addition to his time, Ferman says his company will give a sizable donation.

How much? He's not sure.

It depends on how much he raises.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or

Profile: Jim Ferman Jr.

  • OCCUPATION: President, Ferman Motor Car Co.
  • LINEAGE: Grandson of W. Fred Ferman, who opened a bicycle shop in 1895 that became Ferman Motor Car Co.
  • CURRENT WHEELS: New Mini Cooper.
  • HOME: Childhood house in Old Hyde Park.
  • AGE: 58
  • FIRST JOB: Customer relations manager.
  • 20,000: Cars he sells in a year at 15 dealerships.
  • 1,000: Number of people who work for him.
  • PARTIAL RESUME: Board member, past or present -- Bank of Tampa, Tampa Electric Co., Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Committee of 100, United Way of Greater Tampa, Florida Aquarium, Tampa Museum of Art.
  • IDEA OF FUN: Scuba-diving.

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