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Tea at the museum can restore your soul

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


Do you remember how beautiful last week was? The kind of blue-sky-crisp-cool winter days that remind us why we live in Florida and the perfect weather for Tea in the Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Members of the Stuart Society host one every Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. through April, pouring tea, offering little savories and sweets from silver trays and teapots (Lemon or cream? they will ask). At $3.50 a person, it's a deal.

And then there is the setting. The museum is one of those places -- St. Peter's Cathedral at off hours and the third floor of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at USF are two others -- that make me feel good, even on a bad day. Sitting in the courtyard garden, sipping tea, nibbling on a cucumber sandwich while the fountain burbles restore one's sense of civility. So agreed Carol Phelps, Mary Wantland, Marylou Deuel and Beverly Pankonie when I joined them as they sat in wrought-iron chairs in a shady corner.

But, hard-edged investigative reporter that I am, I had to go beneath this serene surface into the belly of the beast.

You know, the kitchen.

Actually, it was as serene as the garden. I lounged around the counter as Tea in the Garden co-chairwomen Pat Eckert and Evelyn Wilty refilled trays that volunteers Betty Jean Miller, Ruth Gray and Ardith Rutland brought in, cadging asparagus rolls and cookies when Anne Long wasn't looking.

Museum director Michael Milkovich entered with a box of catalogs written in Croatian, which led to a discussion of his multilanguage fluency (a total of six, including Esperanto, but he can "get by" in 10).

Then it was back out to the garden, where I met up with Marlys Cox, a photographer who talked about her latest project, a series of "saints," fictitious women dedicated to Florida things, e.g. St. Astrid of the Palms. "It'll probably offend some people," she said. Can't wait to see it.

* * *

The news that Michael Milkovich plans to retire in December as director of the Museum of Fine Arts has saddened many people, including me. For almost 20 years, he has been a leader in the cultural life of St. Petersburg. I have admired his ability to be both a custodian of the museum's dearly held traditions and an iconoclast who introduced changes with sensitivity and tact. A light-hearted touch belied his formidable will and his intelligence.

Last week, I asked him how many works came to the museum as gifts or acquisitions during his tenure.

"I don't know, off-hand," he said. "Let us walk through and see."

We started in the antiquities gallery.

"Every piece here," he said.

Through room after room, he ticked off paintings and sculptures that have been either acquired or given to the permanent collection since 1982. It is an impressive body of work.

I understand he plans, at least for now, to continue living here, which is good news. Still, I will miss his presence at the museum, a blithe spirit who has enlivened the quiet, stately halls with humor and charm.

Reservations are recommended for Tea in the Garden. If you are not a museum member, admission is $6, $5 for seniors. The 2 p.m. docent tour is a nice prelude to the tea. The Museum of Fine Arts is at 255 Beach Drive NE. For information, call 896-2667.

Looking ahead

Thursday

CATHOLIC DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAS LUNCHEON AND FASHION SHOW: The 26th annual event this year benefits Morning Star School in Pinellas Park for children with special needs. Noon. St. John's Parish Center, Blind Pass Road and 84th Avenue, St. Pete Beach. $12. 367-2118.

WOMEN'S CHAMBER OF COMMERCE LUNCHEON: Members of the St. Petersburg Area Women's Chamber meet for a presentation by Mary Campbell, manager of Park Operations, Sunken Gardens. Prospective members welcome. Noon. Orange Blossom, 220 Fourth St. N. 866-6696.

ALL-STAR AUCTION: Fundraiser for the Suncoast Children's Dream Fund, an agency granting wishes to seriously ill children, features one of the largest selections of sports and celebrity memorabilia, plus vacation packages and gift items. Dinner by Carrabba's. 5:30 p.m. Tropicana Field. $50.

Saturday

MARLY GROUP MIXER: The young professional members of the Museum of Fine Arts meet in the Marly Room for refreshments and a fashion show by Ambria's, a Beach Drive boutique for special occasion clothes for women and children. 6 p.m. 255 Beach Drive NE. $15. 896-2667.

QUEEN OF HEARTS BALL: A community leader is crowned and a court of volunteers announced at this annual black-tie party to benefit ASAP Homeless Services and Help A Child Foundation (formerly Suncoast Child Protection Team). Dinner, dancing, live and silent auctions. 6:30 p.m. TradeWinds Island Grand Resort, 5500 Gulf Blvd. St. Pete Beach. $95. 341-1444.

Feb. 20

UP, UP AND AWAY: Luncheon and fashion show by New Charisma is hosted by Bayfront Medical Center Auxiliary. The fundraiser benefits the hospital's Bearly Sick program which provides affordable day care on site for children of employees so they do not have to miss work. 11 a.m. Mirror Lake Lyceum, 737 Third Ave. N. $45. 867-3706.

Feb. 24

FRIENDS OF STRAYS LUNCHEON AND FASHION SHOW: The furry, four-legged models always steal the show at this annual fundraiser that benefits the agency's emergency surgery and special treatment fund. Noon. St. Petersburg Yacht Club, 11 Central Ave. $30. 822-9421.

CATTLE BARON'S BALL: These Texas-sized parties began in the Lone Star State and have spread to other communities, raising millions for the American Cancer Society. The Pinellas County Unit hosts its first one, with honorary chairman Hulk Hogan and entertainment by country western star Lari White and the Hank Shaw Band. Midway games, pig races, gaming tables, silent and live auctions and barbecue from Cody's Original Roadhouse. 7 p.m. The Long Center, Clearwater. $125. 546-9822.

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