Such was the case at St. Petersburg College a few years ago, when a call resulted in a new 52,000-square-foot arts complex–a museum of fine arts, library, art education studios, auditorium, art vault and a one-of-a-kind art exploration room–not to mention an enormously valuable collection of 20th century art.
The creation was the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, a centerpiece for St. Petersburg College and a major asset for Pinellas County and the entire state of Florida. When combined with the art collection itself, as well as a sizeable cash donation, the total value of the project today is about $40 million.
The museum was an idea that never would have come to fruition if the fires of entrepreneurship did not burn brightly at St. Petersburg College.
Here is what happened:
A stranger telephoned the college in 1996 and simply said, "I’d like to speak to someone about a gift.” Such a call could have been bumped from office to office; however, in the 81 years of our existence, we have learned the importance of seized opportunities. The call was returned quickly, and it was only then we realized the scope of what was about to come our way.
The anonymous caller turned out to be Isabelle Leepa, wife of Allen Leepa, a retired Michigan State University art professor and noted artist. The Leepas had retired to Tarpon Springs, the home of one of SPC’s campuses, and they were looking for a place to donate his collection of abstract and modernist art. Her first phone call–to another institution in the area–had not been returned. The collection included Leepa’s own art; the art of his stepfather, the world-renowned Abraham Rattner; the sculptures and prints of his mother, Esther Gentle; and assorted pieces by their 20th century contemporaries.
Soon we were enmeshed in a state construction matching program, using dollars from our new gift to leverage matching construction dollars from the state. Various grants and other revenue sources quickly became part of the financial mix.
As it turned out, the need for entrepreneurial solutions did not end with the acquisition; similar creative efforts were needed to get the collection from its New York warehouse to Tarpon Springs. Specialized companies wanted $100,000 or more to handle the transfer; we simply rented a large truck and trailer and responsibly moved the collection ourselves.
Today, the Leepa-Rattner Museum is a major cultural asset. Also, the museum has inspired a re-examination of our fine arts and humanities curricula college-wide, including a consideration of mandatory student attendance at our own art museum.
Entrepreneurially-driven arts partnerships and investments additionally may contain real financial potential for institutions such as ours. Indeed, it has been documented that the arts actually create a greater economic benefit for the larger community than sports programs.
Adding a stroke of entrepreneurship to college fine arts programs may go a long way toward generating more influence in the communities they serve.