Hallowed halls

The Orlando Museum of Art bets on a blockbuster. But then what? Not much If you accept the hype, the Orlando Museum of Art is poised for greatness, on the very brink of bringing long-promised "world-class" exhibitions to town. The buildup is right there in the words of Marena Grant Morrisey, OMA's executive director, who bragged on the museum's just-completed expansion and its upcoming "Imperial Tombs of China" show in a promotional handout: "Of all the cities that could have world-class exhibits, Orlando should have them. It is the No. 1 tourist city in the world. Why shouldn't it be the No. 1 artistic city in the world? I can see and hear the excitement of the people who live here. Residents can finally say, 'We are a big city. We can have what Chicago and Los Angeles have had.'" Indeed, "Imperial Tombs" opens Friday, May 2, as the first in OMA's anticipated series of prepackaged, touring blockbusters (though neither Chicago nor Los Angeles has had it). And it is a magnificent show. Its 250 pieces from seven dynasties dating to 500 B.C. include such rare artifacts as nine-foot-tall, 15,000-pound stone lions from the gates of the Forbidden City; a dragon-and-phoenix empress crown adorned with 2,000 pearls and 100 rubies and sapphires; and a burial suit made of 2,000 pieces of jade held in place by two pounds of gold thread. Orlando is the final stop on a five-city U.S. tour for "Imperial Tombs," which drew crowds in Memphis, Tenn.; Provo, Utah; Portland, Ore.; and Denver. But the expectations here are greater, because "Imperial Tombs" -- a show whose opening was at least two years in the making -- represents the hope for the future. It is meant not only to heighten OMA's middling status in the museum world but also to demonstrate a potential for income. Museum officials rushed expansion plans forward so they could accommodate it. They borrowed money they did not have to build for it. They must attract more people than ever before in order to help pay for it. And when it comes to an end after a four-month stay, they have to justify their promise to the public and to themselves that it was not a lark, that the expansion will "enhance the OMA's ability to originate and attract major touring exhibitions" and to further "host 'blockbuster' style exhibitions." Which makes it only fair to ask, what's next? Unfortunately, here's where the expectations appear to have undergone some revision. Ask the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, where grant applications filed by OMA outline a schedule of upcoming exhibitions, and you'll see no more "Imperial Tombs" or other splashy shows that can be marketed to the masses. You'll find instead "Traditional Art and Society in Nigeria: Selections from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection of African Art Loaned by the Disney Co.," which first appeared at OMA in the 1980s and is slated for a year-long display, plus the permanent installation of two shows of works from OMA's vaults: "The American Collection" and "The Pre-Columbian Collection." Another permanent exhibit opening early next year is "18th-, 19th- and 20th-century American Portraits and Landscapes," on long-term loan from Martin and Gracia Andersen. In December, a two-month display of "TransAfrican Art" will be held in conjunction with the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival. And in late 1998, "Toward an American Identity" will showcase 70 works on tour from the Wichita Art Museum. The one real highlight is "Selections from the Ed Broida Trust Collection," due to open in March 1988 for a three-month run. The contemporary works amassed by the noted Palm Beach collector will be displayed as a whole for the first time in a show being put together by curator Sue Scott, who organizes exhibits for OMA as well as other museums. Yet while the Broida show is celebrated in certain circles, it is hardly one with mainstream appeal. (By contrast, the Florida International Museum, an exhibit space carved out of a vacant department store in downtown St. Petersburg, is preparing to open "Titanic" in November, following the just-ended "Alexander the Great" and earlier crowd-pleasing displays that highlighted Russian czars and ancient Egypt.) And with the doubling of its exhibit space, the Orlando museum has now made the task of filling bare walls into a challenge. In the short term they will do so, essentially, by cleaning out the closets. The museum is still intent on bringing the big shows to town, says Hansen Mulford, OMA's curator of exhibitions. "We're looking at the possibility of doing one every two years, Unfortunately, we don't really have any in the works right now except the Broida show." Instead, the museum will focus on showing its own holdings. "Before construction, we had about 25 percent of our collection" on display, he says. "After 'Imperial Tombs,' it will be closer to 50 percent with the re-installation of our Pre-Columbian and African works." But is that desirable? Few museum professionals consider the display of such a large part of the permanent collection to be a serious goal. At any one time, says Ken Rollins, the director of the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center who led the Polk Museum of Art's expansion a decade ago, the Polk displays no more than 10 to 15 percent of its collection. At the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College -- a museum whose collection of 6,000 works is five times larger than OMA's -- only 50 or 60 items are on display, says Cornell Director Arthur Blumenthal. Even after a planned expansion that will double the Cornell's limited exhibit space, just 2 to 3 percent of the collection will be on view. And that's typical. While it's great to showcase highlights, most of the works in any collection tend to be in conservation, on loan elsewhere or to belong, at best, in a study collection that is never shown to the public, says Rollins. "Generally speaking, you'd be hard-pressed to find any museum in America that shows a major percentage of its works, or that aims to." Indeed, now that OMA has achieved its goal to create the larger space, it apparently intends to fill it with the same shows -- even the same works -- that it has displayed for years. Compounding that disappointment is the fact that its collection, however prized in-house, is considered by other museum professionals to be unusually small and average. If there is something worth building new galleries to showcase, said one regional director who asked not to be named, "it's a well-kept secret. In fact, it must be the best-kept secret in the South." The museum's holdings numbered just 1,215 works a few years ago when Budd Harris Bishop, director of the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville, evaluated its contents for the state's Cultural Institutions Program. At the time, OMA was planning its just-completed expansion. "The museum's collections," Bishop noted in his report, "while containing some important key groups of works, lacks the depth and consistency to fill an expanded museum at this point" (emphasis added). The museum has added some works since then, most notably the paintings on long-term loan from Martin Andersen's widow Gracia, and several purchased from its Acquisition Trust fund. But when asked about changes in the collection's size and scope since Bishop's visit, exhibitions curator Mulford says that it remains "basically the same." Neither has the museum made any move to expand its permanent staff to correspond to its physical growth. "We haven't really focused on that issue yet," said Patrick T. Christiansen, president of OMA's board of trustees and an Orlando attorney. "We didn't add staff for 'Imperial Tombs'; we contracted out for its retail, restaurant and ticket services. We've said, 'Let's just get through one stage at a time.'" And the board's perspective on future big-ticket draws? "We've thought about some possibilities, and are looking at them," he says. "But we can only take one step at a time, and these take a little while to put together. "We've learned an awful lot from Memphis `home of Wonders, the originator of 'Imperial Tombs' and a launching pad for blockbusters including the 'Titanic' show`," he says. "But it would be too much of a strain on the staff to do anything about it now. They'd probably shoot me if I brought the subject up." Still, those future possibilities were the main selling point when Morrisey and the museum began soliciting money for the $7.7 million second phase of a renovation and expansion. (The first phase, which built a new entrance, created three multipurpose rooms and added a museum shop, library and administrative areas, was completed in 1992.) The promises drew a lot of support. The museum couldn't break ground until its funds were in place, and by early 1996 pledges totaling $5.5 million were in hand, including $1.5 million each from the city of Orlando and the state of Florida. A loan bridged the gap, and in January 1996 the museum's east facade was ripped off in preparation for the push outward toward Mills Avenue. The cost of mounting "Imperial Tombs" testifies to the high stakes for this and any similar future endeavors. The show's rental fee -- $255,000 paid to China's Bureau of Cultural Relics -- pales next to the $2.5 million required to transport, mount, insure, staff, guard and enhance the display. Ming Court Chinese restaurant will sell food cafeteria-style in the museum's rotunda, and Splendid China will operate the gift shops -- and both will pay the museum for the privilege. Among OMA's expenses are $443,000 for marketing, $62,500 for 25 round-trip, Orlando-to-Beijing plane tickets for Chinese educators, delegates and curators, and $92,000 for "de-installers" who will take the exhibit apart when its run ends. From the outside, the hoopla now would seem to center on gem-encrusted thrones and crowns; in the accounting office, however, the focus is on a small menu of income sources. Corporate support ($75,000), foundation support ($163,550), other private support ($200,000) and gift shop revenues (a projected $265,200) all add up. But missing from the revenue column in the grant application that outlines the above expenses are such sources as government support and cash on hand. And that makes the number of tickets sold crucial. In 1994, when "Imperial Tombs" and the expansion that would make it feasible were first floated before the public, OMA director Morrisey projected 600,000 as the number of guests needed for the museum to break even. Like everything else, however, by last week the figures had grown more modest. "We'll break even at 300,000," says Wrenda E. Goodwyn, OMA's director of marketing and development. "We expect about 400,000 visitors, however; all the other venues had 400,000 to 450,000." And if they attract those same numbers, the Orlando museum would seem eager to go on to the next blockbuster of the sort that it identified as "world-class" and promised in 1996 would "increase tourism and attract national and international attention to Florida." Whatever it is. Whatever it is. Whenever it is.