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In Florida, It’s ‘Go West’ for Arts Donors and Patrons

This article is part of our latest special section on Museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


The Tampa Museum of Art on Florida’s west coast has raised $71 million toward a $100 million capital campaign to expand its footprint along the city’s Riverwalk, which follows the Hillsborough River.

About 65 miles south, the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Fla., best known for annual exhibitions marrying its gardens to floral paintings and photographs by famous artists, has raised $49 million toward a $92 million expansion. And the venerable John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, also in Sarasota, completed its $100 million campaign three years ago, bringing in $80 million in funding and the rest in art.

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Though the east coast of Florida — with the Perez Art Museum Miami, myriad other museums and Art Basil Miami — often grabs headlines, as real estate prices soar across the state, transplants from the North and Midwest and even California are flooding to cities on the state’s west coast. Not only are they bringing enthusiasm for the arts but robust gifts to back it up, allowing museum directors to plan for the future more aggressively than ever. For example, the Tampa museum just recently announced a $25 million gift from the commercial real estate developer Richard Corbett, among the largest individual gifts ever to a Florida museum, according to Michael Tomor, the museum’s executive director.

Florida is popular with people who are retiring, but younger transplants are also enthusiastic. That explains why museums and other nonprofits have become so successful at raising money.

Teri Hansen, president of the Barancik Foundation, created in 2014 by Charles and Margery Barancik, said that the foundation had given away $100 million to local institutions in the past seven years because the Baranciks, who had been coming to Sarasota for decades, had a home on Longboat Key. “For many people philanthropy becomes the center of their social lives,” Ms. Hansen noted. “It creates a community and gives donors a sense of belonging.’’

As Jennifer Rominiecki, who took over as chief executive of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in 2015, recalled, “When I came I thought everyone’s main interest was elsewhere: in the places they had lived.” But, she said: “Sarasota is an older community, and it is a time in people’s lives when they can give, get involved and enjoy being philanthropists. Many people have decided to make Sarasota a priority because their gifts can have so much of an impact.’’

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Much of the money being raised by institutions is going toward new or growing buildings. Hank Hine, the executive director of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, is working with city officials on a potential $42 million expansion (including $17.5 million from Pinellas County) to add 60,000 square feet for digital, education and interactive experiences. The Ringling has added several new buildings, including its Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Center for Asian Art.

Not that museums don’t want to buy art, but costs can be prohibitive. Both the Ringling and the Dali have the advantage of owning major collections, including at the Dali, 2,000 works by the artist himself. Still, the Dali’s Dr. Hine would like to shop. He recalled, though that the museum raised $5 million to bid on the artist’s “Portrait de Paul Eluard” at a 2011 Sotheby’s auction. “It went for S22 million,” he said.

The Ringling, whose campus includes the Ringling Circus Museum, adds carefully to its art collection, largely by acquiring pieces under $100,000. It recently bought a sketch of a Joshua Reynolds painting it already owned. “We tend to buy works that add to the understanding of our collection,” said its executive director, Steven High.

One reason museums add to their physical spaces is to entice donors to then give works they already own, said Mr. Tomor of the Tampa Museum, where a lack of space has caused “us to be “hamstrung in putting our permanent collection on view, thereby dissuading donors who want to give in part to see their collections on display.” Of its $100 million capital campaign, 80 percent will pay for an expansion and renovation to double the museum’s exhibition space.

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It is largely gifts from people who become involved in their communities that have helped expand art museum collections. Stanton and Nancy Kaplan, who retired to Sarasota from Philadelphia, recently gave the Ringling 1,000 photographs, including works by Eugene Atget and Imogen Cunningham, and a collection of Asian scholar’s rocks, also known as gongshi. Half of the Kaplans’ multimillion-dollar gift is in art and half in endowments for photography-related projects.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Kaplan recalled that for more than a decade, he had volunteered to drive one of the trams that takes visitors around the Ringling grounds. Why? “I really enjoyed it,” he recalled, “and I met people from all over the world.’’

The Ringling, a satellite campus of Florida State University, has benefited from other gifts as well. Keith Monda, the former president and chief executive of the fashion company Coach Inc., said he fell in love with Sarasota and retired there when he was 62. An art collector, he and his former wife, Linda, gave $5 million to the Ringling largely in art, but also in funding for a contemporary art gallery that carries their name. They also endowed a position for a curator and provided resources for local children who could not otherwise visit museums.

Some gifts arrive out of the blue. At a 2019 concert at Hayes Hall in Naples, a wealthy city in southwest Florida, a woman handed her business card to an usher, asking to be put in touch with Kathleen van Bergen, who is the chief executive of Artis-Naples, a complex that includes the concert hall and the Baker Museum. It turned out that before his death, the woman’s father, Jean Van Parys, a Belgian, collected artworks by René Magritte. His daughter spent time in Naples, wanted Magritte’s works to be seen and made a long-term loan of six pieces that had never been publicly displayed.

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The Baker Museum, which had been damaged in 2017, has also added 18,000 square feet of space. Among the major donors to the arts complex have been Kimberly K. Querrey and her husband, Louis A. Simpson, who built his reputation helping to select stocks for Warren Buffett. In 2016 they donated $15 million to Artis-Naples, the largest gift in its history. Mr. Simpson died in January.

The Baker also benefited when Olga Hirshhorn, who spent many years in Florida and was the widow of Joseph Hirshhorn, the founding donor of the Washington museum and sculpture garden that carry his name, left it 400 works, including pieces by Pablo Picasso and Josef Albers.

Some Gulf Coast collectors have the resources to fund their own museums, including two that opened in St Petersburg within the last four years. The 137,000-square-foot Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement was founded by a local philanthropist, Rudy Ciccarello, to house his collection of early-20th-century works. And the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art was funded at a cost of over $65 million by Tom and Mary James for their collection.

But not all museums aim to build collections. The Sarasota Art Museum, which focuses on contemporary art, styles itself a kuntshalle, a museum that has no permanent collection. Part of the Ringling College of Art + Design, it assembles exhibitions and displays traveling collections.

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“Our goal is to be a platform for contemporary artists and also a place where our students can experience the global art world,” said the executive director, Virginia Shearer. The museum pays the Sarasota County School Board $1 a year for two buildings. It is also part of the Ringling College of Art + Design, which has raised nearly $98 million over the last five years, of which $17.5 million is earmarked for the museum. Although it got off to a rocky start nearly two decades ago, the Sarasota Art Museum has raised a total of $43 million since 2008, and officially opened in 2019.

“The kuntshalle is a viable concept since that approach serves the function of bringing art to the community,” said Susan Weber, founder of the Bard Graduate Center of Decorative Arts in New York.

Wherever they are and whatever their strategy, all these institutions aim to make a museum a center of cultural and social life. It helps that many are near water. Some have taken advantage. Dr. Hine of the Dali sent the museum cafe’s chef, Chuck Bandel, to work at Miramar, a two-star restaurant near Dali’s home on the Spanish coast, so he could master the art of Spanish cooking. “The appeal of that is that it prolongs the museum experience,’’ Dr. Hine said.

The extension at the Tampa Museum of Art will include a waterfront restaurant, and Selby Gardens routinely hosts events at its venue, which overlooks Sarasota Bay. Just down the road, the Ringling uses Ca’ d’Zan, the 36,000-square-foot mansion that had been the home of John and Mable Ringling, as a glamorous backdrop to wow visitors and potential donors.as a glamorous backdrop as Florida’s population swells.

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