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It's time to cut museum ties

LENNIE BENNETT
Published July 28, 2003

Even Kate Winslet realized she couldn't hold on to Leonardo di Caprio's hand forever.

Near the end of the mega-hit Titanic, as the lovers drifted in icy waters, she said goodbye to his character, Jack, and let go.

That's rather like where we are with the Florida International Museum. It has been a good ride at times, as exhilarating as the scene in which Winslet balances on the bow of that ship, and thanks in part to that same movie. But it's time to let go.

Back in 1995, we needed the museum. Its first show, "Treasures of the Czars," drew more than 600,000 visitors, sparking a mini-revival of downtown.

Since then, four more "blockbusters" were presented and only one, featuring salvaged items from the Titanic, made money, undoubtedly helped by the timely release of the movie, which coincided with the museum's opening.

Most recently, we've had the Kennedy exhibit, a somewhat depressing collection of memorabilia that has been disavowed by the Kennedy family with the suggestion that much of it was purloined by John Kennedy's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. It has been supplemented by smaller, mostly undistinguished shows, many from the vast archives of the Smithsonian Institution. Dismal attendance figures tell the tale: Only 25,373 visitors went through in 2002.

But let's get some perspective.

Up until the Kennedy exhibit, none of the shows did poorly when compared to local attendance figures at other museums. For example, "Alexander the Great," a show of Greek antiquities at FIM in 1997 drew 172,000, the smallest number in its series of blockbuster exhibitions. "Magna Graecia," another exhibition of Greek antiquities from Italy at the Tampa Museum of Art earlier this year, drew 21,641 in its two-month run - and museum officials considered that number a huge success.

The difference is that the Tampa Museum acted within the scope of its market and in the context of a real fine arts museum. Its full-time curator of antiquities put the show together with a respected curator at another museum, working with their contacts in Italy and sharing the cost of the show. They did not expect, nor did they need, several hundred thousand visitors for it to break even.

Historically, the Florida International Museum has had a mentality of bringing a show in at any cost, believing that if it's clothed in enough window-dressing, enough people will come. Any knowledgeable museum administrator would probably have told the folks at FIM that they were naive to think they could attract 550,000 people for an antiquities show in this area - the number they needed to pay for it.

What's really a shame is that even its nonblockbuster Kennedy show had 132,000 visitors in its first year, a grand number by local standards. The Museum of Fine Arts averages in the mid-70,000s most years, and the Salvador Dali Museum, the biggest cultural draw locally, has posted numbers in the low 200,000s for several years. They don't lose money. They can't lose money.

But the Florida International Museum, which has had some of the most successful business people in the area involved in its management and more than 1-million ticket-buying visitors come through its doors, can. It has eaten up millions of dollars of taxpayers' money. (It has also spent millions of dollars of private and corporate money, including $950,000 from the St. Petersburg Times, but that's their business.)

And what does the museum have to show for it? Nothing. It's an exhibition hall without a permanent collection, staffed by a very nice group of people who have little knowledge of art and certainly not the connections to put together shows of much aesthetic or cultural significance.

I know, I know: We're all counting on the exhibition from the State Museum in Russia to save the day. Again. I hope I'm wrong, but the items I've seen in preliminary discussions are not first-rate. In food parlance, they'd be closer to borscht than caviar, and certainly not in the same league as the art Russia is lending to established art museums in the other parts of the United States and Europe. A beautiful exhibition of French art from the State Pushkin Museum of Art, for example, has visited Houston and Atlanta and is now in Los Angeles.

"We could get shows like that if we had dumped that kind of money into the Museum of Fine Arts and helped them build a new pavilion," says city council member Virginia Littrell. "The Florida International Museum is not run on professionalism but on political connections. No other museum operates that way Hhere."

The idea now is to give Florida International Museum one more chance, to let it move to smaller space in the adjacent building St. Petersburg College wants.

Why bother?

Why not redirect some of that civic energy to museums that are succeeding and help them grow?

We should laud the Florida International Museum for giving us a shot of adrenaline when downtown needed it, learn from the collective mismanagement and misguided vision that caused its failure. And let go.

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