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Supporters of the Foosaner Art Museum packed a meeting of the Tourist Development Council’s Cultural Committee to float their ideas for saving the museum from closing.
Florida Institute of Technology since 2011 has operated the museum on Highland Avenue in the Eau Gallie Arts District of Melbourne. But it plans to sell the museum and surrounding property, and to close the museum by July 2021, saying the museum is a money-loser for the university.
Frank Kinney, the university’s senior vice president for external relations and chief of staff, was at Monday’s meeting.
Kinney said he would bring the ideas raised at the meeting back to Florida Tech President Dwayne McCay and the university’s board of trustees. But Kinney made no promises the university would change its plans.
More than a dozen members of the public addressed the Cultural Committee during the public comment portion of the meeting. It was clear many of their comments were directed at Kinney and what they felt was the university’s lack of commitment to keep the museum open.
Among their suggestions to make the museum a success were more aggressive fundraising, including potential corporate donors; longer museum hours; and exhibits that would attract a wider cross section of the community.
Andrea Lee Negroni, the daughter of Dione Negroni-Hendrick, who contributed $1 million to the Foosaner, submitted a letter that was read at Monday’s meeting. The letter was critical of the university’s plans to close the museum, and offered 15 suggestions to keep the museum open.
“When I paid the final installment of my late mother’s grant to FIT President Dr. Dwayne McKay in 2017, with a 10% “bonus” contribution from my siblings and myself, I was unaware of the university’s conclusion that the museum was unsustainable,” Negroni wrote.
“Neither Dr. McKay nor any other representative of FIT or the museum expressed reservations about the museum’s future when accepting the gift.”
Negroni said reports of the museum’s planned closing in 2021 “are sad and discouraging.
“With her generous gift, my mother, a photographer, sought to create
a perpetual tribute to her parents, while promoting art and culture in a manner that would benefit FIT, the public and the wider community.”
Negroni wrote that closing the Foosaner “would be a loss to FIT and its students, faculty and alumni, as well as a cultural gut punch to residents of Melbourne and Brevard County.
“Art and beauty have documented and bolstered the human spirit throughout history. Art endures. Art fires our imagination and inspires creativity, change, technology and innovation. The loss of a good art museum is a cultural death, erasing opportunities to see beyond our quotidian realities.”
Suggestions to turn Foosaner Art Museum around
Among Negroni’s suggestions for how Florida Tech could turn the museum around were:
• Rebranding the Foosaner as a “museum of arts and sciences” to more closely align the museum’s mission with Florida Tech’s mission. This could include exhibits with a focus of science, aviation or engineering.
• Refocusing part of the Foosaner to appeal to young people.
• Reaching out to local celebrities for participation in and endorsement of museum events.
• Creating partnerships with local hotels and restaurants to encourage tourist visits.
• Holding Florida Tech functions — such as receptions, awards ceremonies and department reunions — at the museum.
“These are some very good ideas,” Cultural Committee Chair Andrea Young said after reading Negroni’s letter to those in attendance at Monday’s meeting.
Tourist Development Council Chairman Tim Deratany reiterated his contention that Florida Tech was wrong to disband the Council of 100 after the university took over running the Foosaner. The Council of 100 had as members people who contributed at least $1,000 a year to the museum.
Deratany said the museum also should have more actively sought state and local grants for the museum.
Deratany is a member and former chairman of the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, as well as a former member of the Florida Senate and the Florida House of Representatives. He also is a former member of the museum board, when it was known as the Brevard Art Museum, and a former director of community relations at Florida Tech.
“We need a museum of the future,” said Eau Gallie artist Derek Gores, who had a show last year at the museum. “Closing at four o’clock does not work.”
FIT plan calls for putting museum buildings, land on market next year
Kinney said he appreciates the dialogue taking place with the community now, rather than in 2021, when the museum is scheduled to close. He said the university would welcome proposals from members of the community.
But he said Florida Tech’s current plan remains putting the museum buildings and land on the market early as next year, in anticipation of the museum closing in 2021.
Kinney said, when Florida Tech took over the financially struggling museum in 2011, “we made a commitment to operate it for 10 years, and we’re going to keep that commitment” through July 2021.
Kinney said Florida Tech initially found the museum facilities “needed a lot of work,” had building code violations, needed a new air-conditioning system to help preserve the artwork, and were infested with rats.
Florida Tech started extensive renovations to bring the museum “up to snuff so we’re safe to bring the public into the facility and properly display the art,” Kinney said.
In all, Florida Tech says it has invested $7 million in renovating and running the museum.
Kinney said, as a private university, most of the money that goes toward the museum comes from student tuition, not from state or local government.
“Students pay a lot of money to go to school at Florida Tech, and the money that we’re using to actually support the museum comes from student tuition,” Kinney said.
“Like any business — and we are a business — you have to focus is on the customers, and in our case, it’s the students of the university,” Kinney said. “And that is our No. 1 objective. And the art is important.
“But, at the end of the day, we had to make a difficult decision, and it hasn’t been easy, but that’s where we are at this point in time.”
Kinney emphasized that the Foosaner is not a failed museum, and Florida Tech is proud of what it has done for the Foosaner since 2011.
Museum draws about 15,000 visitors a year
“It’s a very successful museum in a lot of ways,” with 15,000 visitors a year, plus jazz concerts and student art camps, Kinney said.
Kinney said the museum’s management sought to bring in “world-class exhibits” — more than 30 in the last eight years. But Florida Tech found that they were costing $40,000 to $60,000 each.
Those type of exhibits were discontinued several years ago “because we just couldn’t continue to afford to do that,” Kinney said.
Kinney said the university would consider proposals from government entities or nonprofit organizations to take ownership of the artwork, but has not received any inquiries.
Deratany asked Kinney whether the university would be willing to a compromise, in which it would allocate half of the proceeds from the sale of the museum building and land to the community as “seed money” for another entity to open a new museum.
Deratany said this would be an alternative, rather than Florida Tech “just saying: ‘We’re just going to keep all the money. We’re going to walk away. ‘ “
Kinney said he will take that proposal and others raised at Monday’s meeting back to McCay and the Florida Tech board of trustees, which next meets in January.
But Kinney countered that Florida Tech invested $7 million in the museum that it “could have been invested in the university,” and “the idea of getting some of that money back seemed reasonable.”
Cultural Committee member Tom Powers said that, at this point, the most likely solution would be to raise what he estimates as $3 million to acquire the museum property from Florida Tech, and have another entity run the museum.
“The only way to solve the problem is money,” said Powers, who was chairman of the board of the museum in 2011, when it was turned over to Florida Tech.
“Maybe public sentiment can change their mind on that subject. But, as I see it, that’s where we stand. The only solution to the problem is paying off FIT. That’s the road we have to take, as I see it.”
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY.
Contact Berman at 321-242-3649
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