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Make way for Monet

As the wildly successful Chihuly glass exhibition closes today, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts prepares for the next potential blockbuster show.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published May 30, 2004

  photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
After bringing together the largest show ever of works by glass artist Dale Chihuly, which drew record crowds, director John Schloder looks toward other big projects, including museum expansion. Here, he stands before an illuminated panel of Chihuly paintings.
photo
[Images from Museum of Fine Arts]
The Museum of Fine Arts will borrow Claude Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Reflections on the Thames from the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris for its next major exhibition, tentatively titled “Claude Monet and Modernist London” and scheduled to open in January.
photo
The inspiration for the museum’s next big show is Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Effect of Fog, considered one of the finest works in the Museum of Fine Art’s permanent collection. All works in the exhibition will be themed around the Thames River in London.

ST. PETERSBURG - Today, as has been the case for most of the past 130 or so days, lines of people will snake beyond the stately portico of the Museum of Fine Arts and down its broad steps, hundreds of tourists and locals waiting to see the monumental glass sculptures of Dale Chihuly.

This is their last chance.

The exhibition of works by the most famous glass artist in the world, the largest Chihuly museum show ever, closes this afternoon after a record-breaking run that is the equivalent in the museum world of winning the Stanley Cup.

"Chihuly Across Florida: Masterworks in Glass" has been a triumph for the small waterfront museum. During its 19-week run, this show has drawn more than 150,000 visitors, the museum's highest attendance ever. That's more than twice the number the museum has averaged annually for several years.

This has been a triumph, too, for John Schloder, 56, the museum's director for almost three years.

Schloder is only the fourth leader in the museum's 39-year history. He is part of a generation of museum directors who have shaken off the fusty institutional image of a traditional museum and shaken up programming. But if he is ambitious for himself and this museum, he doesn't seem to be a grandstander in the mold of Thomas Hoving, the flamboyant past director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim, who launched that museum on a global expansion that has met with mixed results.

"If I have a big vision or a mission," he says, "it's to make everyone realize what a gem they have in downtown St. Petersburg."

Such a low-key generality sounds almost disingenuous from a man who brought the Chihuly exhibition here despite early skepticism, who plans another potential blockbuster in January featuring impressionist and post-impressionist works on loan from major institutions, and who is poised to launch a multimillion-dollar capital campaign to expand the Palladian museum building.

With the success of the Chihuly show, which cost the museum about $500,000 but has reaped a handsome - but unspecified - profit, Schloder is in a good position to think big and take bigger risks.

"With a 22-year perspective as a trustee and in other positions," says Carol Upham, president of the museum's board of trustees, "the last two years have been the most incredible and marvelous."

"The Chihuly triumph is an example of what he can do," says Eugene Patterson, a former trustee and editor emeritus of the St. Petersburg Times, who headed the search committee that recommended Schloder. "I'm very proud we recruited him."

Schloder's resume is more than solid, though nothing in his upbringing pointed him toward a career in the art world. Growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, he says he didn't visit an art museum until he was 19. He graduated from Duquesne University, majoring in biology with plans to go to medical school. A trip to Paris as an exchange student - and a stint working in the Louvre - changed that.

"I was supposed to go for six months and wound up staying for 10 years," he says.

He worked in the paintings department, specializing in 16th and 17th century art, then in the antiquities department, eventually earning his doctorate from the Institute of Art and Archaeology at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.

His first position stateside was at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1982, when he became an assistant director. He was tapped as director of the Birmingham Museum of Art in 1992, where he co-curated his first blockbuster show, featuring Chinese antiquities, and oversaw a major expansion.

In 1996, Schloder became director of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb. He mounted more blockbusters, including a Chihuly exhibition that broke attendance records at the venerable museum.

A brief stint as director of the Naples (Fla.) Museum of Art also included a Chihuly show, but Schloder left that post after less than a year, citing differences with museum leaders.

He says he began planning a Chihuly show for the St. Petersburg museum as soon as he arrived in September 2001, saying he was building on the work of his predecessor, Michael Milkovich.

"Michael and his board deserve a lot of credit," Schloder says, "for starting this tradition of doing major shows with major loans."

But climbing on the Chihuly bandwagon was a stretch for some. Its half-million-dollar price tag was steep for an institution whose annual budget is not quite $2-million. More than that, showcasing the relatively new art form of studio glass, especially by an artist known to many for installations at luxury casinos in Las Vegas and the Bahamas, was a serious departure for a museum that has favored Old Masters.

"There were some eyebrows raised," Schloder says.

"We've had shows that were almost as expensive," says chief curator Jennifer Hardin, citing an exhibition of Croatian art several years ago that she says cost about $400,000 to bring in. "The concerns were mostly driven by the facts, coming off of 9/11 and two years of difficulties with the (stock) market, two years of deficits here, anxiety with respect to tourism. Would people have the money to spend on a Chihuly show and would they want to?"

Bonita Cobb, a former trustee and former member of the museum's accessions committee and a past president of the Stuart Society, the museum's prestigious women's volunteer organization, was one of the doubters.

"My main thing," she says, "was it wasn't original art. It was factory glass. And even though it was popular, it could have done more with the history of glass. There was an opportunity to teach."

The next big exhibition should please even the most resolute traditionalists: a showcase of paintings by the beloved French impressionist Claude Monet, with historical and geographical importance that should be both scholarly and popular.

Schloder gave Hardin the green light to develop a major exhibition for 2005, the 40th anniversary of the museum.

"John had originally wanted to do a Monet show," she says. "But he allowed me to make it more contextual because I thought we'd have an easier time getting people to loan us paintings."

The result is one themed around the museum's Parliament, Effect of Fog, painted by Monet in 1904 and one of the finest works in its permanent collection. Hardin scored some world-class loans from about a dozen museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery and Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris.

The exhibition, tentatively titled "Claude Monet and Modernist London" and scheduled to open Jan. 16, will be big, with about 100 paintings, prints and photographs. The works will be themed around the Thames, the river that runs through London that inspired a group of French and American artists loosely categorized as impressionists, post-impressionists and naturalists.

The exhibition will begin with a series of etchings by James McNeill Whistler from 1859 that had an enormous effect on painters and printers; it will end with the beginning of World War I. Included will be a watercolor by Winslow Homer, "the only thing he ever did in London," Hardin says, paintings by Andre Derain, James Tissot and Camille Pissarro, vintage photographs and prints, and historical materials.

The big stars will be about a dozen borrowed Monets. The artist was fascinated by water and the way light plays across it, as seen in his most famous series, the water lilies painted at his home in Giverny, France. From 1899 to 1901, he painted a series of Thames views that focused on the Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. Thirty-seven of them were exhibited in Paris in 1901. The show at the Museum of Fine Arts brings some of them together again for the first time since that exhibition.

"We got things I thought we'd never get," Hardin says. "I think the institutions were willing to lend them because it's a topic that has never been done."

The catalog, which is being written now, will include scholarly essays along with lavish reproductions of the works.

The Chihuly show has taxed the museum's resources even as it has brought phenomenal interest and revenue. Its 16-member staff is small, considering that the institution is one of only two general art museums in Florida (the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach is the other), with a collection of about 4,000 works that spans 4,500 years of art and culture.

"The people here have been working two to three jobs," Upham says. "They're overtaxed, and they need a break. I tell people we're all going into rehab in June to recover and resurface in September."

The museum has a large and loyal volunteer base that includes docents, greeters and shop personnel who have supplemented the staff jobs since the museum opened. For the Chihuly show, several hundred more volunteers were marshaled to handle the crowds and will be needed when the anniversary exhibition opens.

Before that, Schloder hopes to renovate the main galleries, which were last refurbished about 25 years ago and were showing their age even before the arrival of several thousand visitors a week. Some of the Chihuly profits will pay for new carpeting and wall treatments. The Stuart Society, which stages social events and fundraisers to support the museum, donated money to replace the aging air conditioning system earlier this year and has pledged to help underwrite the catalog for the Monet show.

The Monet show will cost, says Schloder, about $700,000. At least one major sponsor, pledging $100,000, has signed on for it. Raising underwriting dollars has been easier than it was for the Chihuly show, he says, probably because Chihuly established a track record and impressionist painting is so popular.

"I think something like the Monet show is more in keeping with a fine arts museum," says Cobb, the former trustee. "I don't want to appear elitist because that's so often the reputation of a museum, but we have a responsibility to teach."

"I think it will do exceptionally well," Upham says. "I think people who don't know a lot about art know about impressionism."

Unlike the Chihuly show, "Claude Monet and Modernist London" will travel - giving it added cachet and bringing in more revenue - to the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art after finishing its run here next April 24.

"We're going to take a break after that," says Schloder. "If it hadn't been our 40th anniversary, I probably wouldn't have done two big shows back to back."

Like the Monet show, more modest exhibitions in 2005 will relate to the museum's permanent collection. Most of the exhibitions in 2006 are rented traveling shows, such as one featuring contemporary Korean ceramics and another celebrating the 50th anniversary of the venerable photography magazineAperture.

That will free up officials to focus on the museum expansion.

"We're still in the dreaming stages," says Schloder, though they have signed up architect Yann Weymouth of HOK in Tampa, the firm designing the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art expansion in Sarasota. Weymouth was also selected by the trustees of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg to design a new building on its current site, but the museum is now in discussion with the city to move north to land now occupied by the Bayfront Center arena.

Schloder expects to add, by 2010, about 30,000 square feet with up to 10 new galleries, including a large one for special exhibitions, along with more educational areas. The configuration will allow the museum to exhibit more of its permanent collection, most of which stays in storage now.

Such projects are considered benchmarks in a museum director's career, even more than successful exhibitions. When construction dust clears at the Museum of Fine Arts, will Schloder be ready to move on?

"There will still be a lot of challenges here," he says. "Even after you get a new wing built, there's programming and upgrading of staff.

"This is a museum in transition," Schloder says. "Change is good. But I'm patient when I have to be."

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com

If you go

"Chihuly Across Florida: Masterworks in Glass" is at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, today. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the last visitors admitted at 5:30. Admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors and $5 students. (727) 896-2667.

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 13:20:21]


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