Empires of Mystery

John Galbraith
Benefactor John Galbraith has been generous and forgiving in his support for the museum.
Times files: 1997)
Museum back in the black -- for now

The Florida International Museum has had a shaky financial history, from millions in debt to its current $3-million nest egg.

Times staff writer

ST. PETERSBURG -- Regardless of the exhibits within, the Florida International Museum has been quite a spectacle itself.

Museum administrators never intended that, but that’s what has happened since the museum opened its doors in 1995 with its first show, “Treasures of the Czars.” The financial gyrations have been especially noteworthy.

Like the big drop in the middle of a roller coaster ride, the museum opened with Czars financially secure, barreled ahead into serious financial straits, nearly closed under a mountain of debt, then held on to finally be sitting atop a fat, $3-million nest egg.

Credit the city of St. Petersburg, museum benefactor John Galbraith, former museum executive director James Broughton and some unbelievable timing for the wild ride.

It was Galbraith, who amassed his fortune as a mutual funds executive here, who in late 1996 put the museum’s ailing finances into perspective: More than 1.25-million people had visited downtown St. Petersburg because of the museum, pumping some $100-million into the local economy.

“But we lost money,” he said. “You can’t spend more than you take in.”

Actually, that is exactly what the Florida International Museum had done since the day it opened with the Czars show in 1995.

More than 600,000 people flocked downtown to see the lush show during its six-month stay here, a big success to any museum manager. Despite the obvious popularity, though, the show lost money. It had cost more than $6-million to stage.

Blockbuster shows and persistent red ink were to be Broughton’s hallmark. Despite the losses, he argued, the city’s economy was reaping big benefits.

James Broughton
Blockbuster shows and persistent red ink were former executive director James Broughton’s hallmark.
[Times files 1994)
That was his style. He liked working the big tent without a net.

Some museum board members and managers grumbled that Broughton operated the museum out of his head. He would create the big shows from scratch, conjure up a budget, secure financing, line up museums to take shows when they finished here. His company would operate the museum store and take any profits.

That operating style caught up with him: Less than a month before the second show was to open in January 1996, some board members complained that the museum had no contract to exhibit the main artifacts for “The Splendors of Ancient Egypt.”

Despite pleas to places as high as the White House, no contract was forthcoming. Negotiations with Egyptian museum officials fell apart. Egyptian artifacts from a German museum were secured at the last minute, but the exhibit opened more than a month late.

By the closing date, 300,000 visitors had seen the show, 40 percent less than needed to break even.

Although “Alexander the Great” opened on time in October 1996, its huge budget of $6-million and relatively sparse attendance of 173,000 doomed it.

By then the Florida International Museum was some $11-million in debt, much of it to Galbraith for money he had loaned the facility.

“I think the resounding vote of the community is we’ve been a tremendous success, with one exception: financially,” said then-museum board member Joe Cronin. “We need to address that.”

It looked grim. Museum administrators and board members made repeated trips to City Hall to win financing, only to be rebuffed.

Board members also tired of Broughton’s operating style. In December 1996, he announced that he would be leaving the museum the next July.

Two things happened quickly. The board replaced Broughton with Cronin, and board member Rick Baker negotiated the rights to “Titanic: The Exhibition,” then enjoying a good run as part of the 10-year-old Wonders series in Memphis, Tenn.

Workers from Lou's Crane Service lower a plane into place October 19, 1998 to make it look as if the aircraft is crashing into the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg. The museum's new Peruvian exhibit, "Empires of Mystery: The Incas, the Andes and Lost Civilizations," is to open October 23, and organizers hope the plane calls attention to the adventure-based exhibit. The Peruvian exhibit runs through April 25, 1999.
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Just one problem, though: All that debt.

After weeks of intense negotiations and a bit of brinkmanship from both sides, the city agreed in February 1997 to purchase the museum’s building for $3.9-million and forgive some debt, as did two corporate supporters.

The biggest forgiver, though, was Galbraith. He released the museum from its obligation of repaying him some $7-million in loans.

“The museum gave a lift to downtown when we had no lift at all,” Mayor David Fischer said of his support for the city-backed deal just before the Titanic show opened.

“Culture is a seller,” said Fischer. “It works, and it’s not a $200-million baseball stadium.”

Then Titanic arrived and blew the museum’s doors off.

Its November 1997 opening dovetailed with the release of the blockbuster movie Titanic. Ticket tie-ins drew even more visitors. On one final-weekend day alone, nearly 10,000 people came through.

Museum officials had calculated that they would need 400,000 visitors to break even. They got more than 830,000, who brought with them an estimated $125-million economic impact to the city.

Earlier this year, museum chairman Rick Baker stood before the St. Petersburg City Council and said: “This is one of the greatest museum exhibition success stories in the history of the United States.”

Maybe so, but time now for some more heavy lifting: Officials at the St. Petersburg museum have worked overtime to package the current “Empires of Mystery” exhibit with as much snap, crackle and pop as they can.

A tamer version of the show, with the same artifacts, drew just 155,000 visitors when on display in Memphis this summer. Here, the museum needs at least 325,000 visitors for the exhibit to break even financially.

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