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John F. Kennedy: The Exhibition

Despite ups and downs, museum leads downtown resurrection

In its five years of existence, the Florida International Museum has brought about 2-million people to its exhibits, and subsequently downtown.

By DAVID K. ROGERS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Faberge eggs, relics from Egyptian tombs, Incan gold and JFK's rocking chair are unlikely urban redevelopment tools, but many of the reasons for the re-emergence of St. Petersburg's downtown are found beneath the gallery lighting of the Florida International Museum.

The museum's relatively short history -- it opened five years ago -- belies its significance to downtown, culturally and economically, as well as to its self-esteem.

photo
John Galbraith, at left waving, and St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer, far right, welcome those going to the opening night of “Treasures of the Czars,’’ the Florida International Museum’s first exhibit, in January 1995. The six-month show proved to be a boon for downtown St. Petersburg, attracting more than 600,000 people.
[Times files: 1995]

Though the museum is on sound ground now, it struggled its first few years to establish itself and determine its mission, management and finances. Throughout, the city of St. Petersburg has supported it with time and money because of its unvarnished interest in the bottom line: Culture, done well, is a powerful economic lure.

St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer recalls the meetings he had in 1992 to drum up interest in a new museum for downtown. The economy was in recession "and there were a lot of people angry about a stadium (Tropicana Field) with no (baseball) team but with a lot of (construction) bonds to pay off," Fischer said recently.

He looked to Memphis, Tenn., which had fashioned a "Wonders" series of so-called "blockbuster" exhibitions. The shows had given that city's downtown a real lift.

Architect for the Memphis series was James Broughton, who worked for that town's mayor. After Fischer had assembled a board and an initial round of financial commitments, the St. Petersburg group invited Broughton to visit so they could ask him about putting on a blockbuster exhibition here.

They even had a location in mind -- the former Maas Brothers department store with some 200,000 square feet of empty space.

The board members were so impressed with Broughton that they offered him a job. Broughton signed on and used his connections in Russia to put on the first show: "Treasures of the Czars," which opened in January 1995. It was a huge success. More than 600,000 people came to see it during its six-month run.

And as the lines outside the museum grew, somnolent stores and restaurants downtown came alive.

"I hear about it to this day," Fischer said. "I can be in New Hampshire, and when I tell people where I'm from, they'll tell me about the time they were vacationing in Naples or Sarasota and how they drove up here to see it. That got us going."

But the museum lost money. Part of the problem was Broughton's penchant for assembling the shows himself and exhibiting them first. That works only if other venues want the exhibit, allowing overhead costs to be shared. But only one small venue -- in Topeka, Kan. -- wanted Czars.

Broughton's second exhibition, "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," did not go well. Just weeks before the show was to open, board members learned that there was no contract between the museum and Egyptian authorities.

Broughton insisted that he would have a deal, but the cost was rising, he said, from $1-million, to $2-million, then to $10-million. He flew to Egypt to save the deal. He could not.

In the end, a show of the same name opened -- a month late -- but only after a museum in Germany that was closing for a renovation offered parts of its Egyptian collection. Just 300,000 visitors came to the show. Worse, the museum was about $5-million in debt.

Although the museum was -- and remains -- non-profit, a for-profit company controlled by Broughton operated the museum's gift shop and restaurant. Though the museum paid Broughton a monthly fee of $80,402, he would not disclose the company's finances, a fact that irked city officials, especially when the museum continued to ask the city for financial help.

A third exhibit, "Alexander the Great," opened in October 1996. It had a $6-million budget, and just 173,000 people came to see it.

The Florida International Museum seemed destined to fail. It was $11-million in debt. Museum officers begged the city for money, but officials balked. In addition, local philanthropist John Galbraith was owed $8.3-million.

In short order, changes were made. The board replaced Broughton with Joe Cronin, a board member and former utility executive. Another board member, Rick Baker, an attorney, got the rights to "Titanic: The Exhibition," then on display in Memphis. And Galbraith forgave the $8.3-million in loans that he and his wife had made to the museum. Soon after, the city gave the museum $3.9-million in exchange for the title to the building.

"Titanic" went on to be a huge hit -- just what the museum needed to regain its credibility and financial stability. The November 1997 opening coincided with the December release of Titanic the movie, itself a blockbuster hit.

The museum needed 400,000 visitors to break even. When the show closed in May 1998, more than 830,000 people had seen it. It produced a $3-million nest egg for the museum.

But the next exhibition, "Empires of Mystery," an overview of pre-Columbian artifacts from the Andes, lacked "Titanic's" magic. When it closed in May 1999, the show had drawn only 179,000 visitors. To break even, 325,000 were needed. The museum lost an estimated $2.5-million.

The Kennedy exhibition marks a big departure for the Florida International Museum. Though it will look like the other blockbuster shows, it will become a permanent collection.

"You can't keep betting your whole company every time," Cronin said. "We just can't stay on the annual blockbuster treadmill."

Museum officers are confident that the mystique and abiding interest in Kennedy and his times will grow as word of the museum spreads.

Then, as space becomes available, temporary blockbusters will be staged.

The museum also has tentatively negotiated an affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution to present a series of exhibits that focus on various aspects of the American presidency.

To help make that happen, the city has approved a $2.1-million funding package for the museum, as has Pinellas County. Museum officers are trying to persuade the state to contribute as much as $3-million to help finish museum space for the blockbuster and Smithsonian programs.

So what has the city gotten for its money? An estimated 2-million people visiting the museum and downtown.

Said Sam Bond, director of the nearby St. Petersburg Museum of History: "It was the Florida International Museum that made people believe that downtown St. Petersburg could be a tourism destination again. There's been a renaissance in our city, and they've played a major role."

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