The city hopes secret's a success

The last time Orlando's elected leadership popped a surprise on the cultural community, the result was the deservedly maligned Tower of Light outside City Hall -- proof that one man's art (in that case, former Mayor Bill Frederick's) is another man's atrocity.

That's less likely to happen this time. The donated paintings and sculpture of folk artist Earl Cunningham that form the foundation of the city's new Mennello Museum of American Art, which opens Sunday, Nov. 22, have an established cachet. Cunningham's works have toured widely and twice have been featured in shows at the Orlando Museum of Art. His pieces are found in the permanent collections of 10 museums across the country, including the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art. And the published catalog for the display includes a 15-page essay celebrating the artist that was authored by H. Barbara Weinberg, a curator of American paintings and sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Why, then, did the city keep a lid on the project until just one month before the museum opens?

"It's highly unusual for a city to get such a wonderful gift as this, and it was so exciting that it made it even more exciting to make a surprise announcement," says Brenda Robinson, the city's deputy chief administrative officer.

Rationale aside, the formal announcement on Oct. 23 (though reported a day earlier by the Sentinel) typified Orlando's trust-us style of governance, much as Mayor Glenda Hood -- credited as the driving force behind the new museum -- continues to push onward behind the scenes to get her performing arts center built. The style remains consistent: We'll inform the public when we're good and ready, and usually after it's a done deal.

In this case, the city already had a building in need of a purpose when Winter Park philanthropists Marilyn and Michael Mennello offered to donate a portion of their Cunningham collection. The site was the Howard Phillips house on the south side of Loch Haven Park; acquired by the city for $385,000 in 1984, the building and its lakefront acreage have been mostly unused in recent years, partly due to limited parking.

Marilyn Mennello recalls the museum came up in conversation with the mayor "eight or nine months ago." Hood knew of the collection, and knew of the state's interest in keeping it in Florida, where the Maine-born artist had lived since 1949. Marilyn Mennello's own fascination with Cunningham dates to 1969, when she came across him in his curio shop on St. Augustine's St. George Street and convinced him to reluctantly sell her a painting; well after his death in 1977, the Mennellos began to acquire Cunningham's works, and today own more than 300 of about 450 existing pieces.

The donation of 45 Cunningham paintings along with about 30 pieces by other artists -- some of which will be displayed in an outdoor sculpture garden adjacent to the modest, four-room gallery -- is valued at more than $3 million.

What makes the new museum feasible for large numbers of visitors is the neighboring garage built last year for the Orlando Science Center. An architect employed by the city's Downtown Development Board was tapped to design a renovation that gutted the home's interior, and on Sept. 30 permits were approved to begin the work, says Jim Vick, chief of the city's fleet and facilities management bureau, who added that he was first alerted to the project last summer.

Total cost to prepare the museum is about $300,000; the only "new" expense was a $56,000 indoor fire sprinkler system, approved by the city council in mid-October. "We had some stuff we planned to do to the Phillips house anyway," says Vick; the rest of the expense "used some leftover money from other projects."

Frank Holt, the city's public art coordinator, will move his office from City Hall to the museum and assume added duties as its director, with one full-time assistant to be hired and a fund-raising board yet to be appointed. The city has budgeted about $84,000 a year to run the place.

"It really is `Hood's` vision, I will tell you that," says Marilyn Mennello. "Certainly she wanted to make a special announcement. But lots of people knew this was going on."

Says Jim DeSimone, Hood's spokesman: "I can even make a government-efficiency argument here and say we moved quickly. ... Honestly, I wish I had another month, because we have interest in this from all over the country."

Imagine if they'd spoken up sooner.

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