The landmark Treasures of the Czars exhibition isn't just a collection of priceless historical pieces from far away. More than that, it represents a rare combination of civic determination, selflessness and good timing.
The Treasures are 272 items from the reign of the Romanov czars, 1613 to 1917. Those centuries were a period of monumental change in Russia: from a church-dominated, insular land to a secular, militaristic member of the European council of nations. Russia became one of the largest empires ever, strong enough to not only repel Napoleon's armies but to chase them all the way back to a victory march through Paris.
To chronicle that change and power, American and Russian curators combed the vast Kremlin Museums for clerical and royal household items. The pieces they gathered form the inaugural exhibit for the Florida International Museum, a renovated department store in downtown St. Petersburg. Treasures is said to be the largest collection of items ever sent out of the country by the Moscow Kremlin Museums.
While the museum pieces are proof that the Romanov dynasty was wealthy and educated to fine tastes, they are also a symbol of the effort by elected officials and business executives to overcome St. Petersburg's image as the Little City that Couldn't.
Oddly, the national pastime of baseball was both the dream and the frustration.
The National Hockey League Tampa Bay Lightning did book the ThunderDome for the past two seasons. But the longer the Dome stands without a baseball team, the more it teases fans and officials as repudiation of the ethereal promise, "If you build it, they will come."
Hoping to overcome the repeated frustrations of losing Major League Baseball, St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer set out to capture or create something totally different. Alerted in the spring of 1991 by council member Connie Kone, Fischer focused on a nationally acclaimed traveling exhibition of items relating to Catherine the Great.
The tie-in was a natural, he figured: "Catherine" was on loan for display in three U.S. cities by the renowned Hermitage museum of St. Petersburg, Russia, birthplace of the man who had named Fischer's city.
In August 1991, Fischer and an aide contacted the Memphis, Tenn., official who had organized the "Catherine" exhibit and was shepherding it to Los Angeles and then Dallas. The timing was right: Memphis chief administrative officer James E. Broughton Sr. would leave the city payroll by the end of the year.
Encouraged by the Russian curators, Fischer in May 1992 formed with nine executives the not-for-profit Florida Cultural Exhibitions Inc. Broughton was named executive director.
That was the plan through a visit by more than 30 St. Petersburg residents to the namesake Russian city in October 1992. But by January, financial uncertainties imposed by an agent for the Hermitage collapsed negotiations.
It seemed that St. Petersburg had gotten tantalizingly close -- twice -- to an objective that would certify the area as big time, only to lose again, and again.
But Broughton quickly suggested approaching Moscow's Kremlin Museums, also a huge storehouse of historical, cultural and art items. With relative swiftness, Moscow officials signed a letter of intent with the Floridians to stage a major exhibit.
The contract, detailing what would be loaned, for how long, and at what fees to the Kremlin Museums, was signed in St. Petersburg Oct. 6, 1993.
In the meantime, the St. Petersburg group, led by real estate broker Ira Mitlin, had negotiated to occupy the long-vacant Maas Brothers department store. Rather than merely leasing the 300,000-square-foot building to Florida Cultural Exhibitions for two years, at a fee of $2, Federated Department Stores gave the building and its 450-space garage to the group.
Renovating the department store to be a permanent exhibition hall was now going to cost several times the original estimate of $1.25-million, and transporting, insuring and displaying the museum pieces was budgeted at about $6.2-million. While Broughton was convinced the exhibit could draw at least 500,000 visitors in five months, where was that kind of money going to come from?
Not from the city of St. Petersburg. Even though the mayor had been the dominant force behind securing the exhibit, he knew he couldn't persuade the City Council to finance the project. He did get the council to agree to be a third-tier guarantor against losses: The city would pay as much as $500,000 toward any exhibition debts greater than $2-million.
As for the reconstruction and start-up costs, three private organizations involved from the start stepped forward. Florida Progress Corp. and the St. Petersburg Times each underwrote $500,000 toward a line of credit for a construction loan, and retired bond executive John W. Galbraith, acting through his Galbraith Properties Inc., added a $1-million guarantee.
Then, those three companies made loans totaling $3.2-million for underwriting the operating costs.
In July 1994, the founding group voted to change its corporate name to Florida International Museum -- also the new name for the renovated building itself.
Broughton assumed the title of exhibition director; his Broughton International Inc. has a million-dollar-plus contract to operate and provide staff for all museum functions, including creating the lavish exhibition catalog and stocking the gift shop. The museum receives a percentage of gift-shop sales.
The museum named former Florida Progress executive Joseph Cronin president and CEO. He concentrated much of his time during the second half of 1994 soliciting corporate donations and sponsorships of the 12 galleries displaying the Treasures. Major players such as Publix Super Markets and Templeton Worldwide made large in-kind and cash contributions; in less than five months, Florida International tallied more than $400,000 in corporate support.
In November, the museum brought a Moscow couple and their teenage daughter to St. Petersburg to paint on gallery walls authentic reproductions of decorations in various Kremlin rooms. The same month, Broughton and officials from Topeka, Kansas, made a trip to Moscow to write a contract for the Kansans to become only the second venue in North America to display the collection.
But for five months this year, St. Petersburg, Fla., has the spotlight to itself as site of Treasures of the Czars, whose inventory is acclaimed by antiquities specialists.