The History & Legacy of the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg
Margaret Acheson Stuart loved art. She had an appreciation for pieces from all periods and from around the world, and spent countless days of her youth visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Frick Collection in New York. Stuart was one of nine children and raised in New York, the daughter of Edward Goodrich Acheson, who with the backing of Andrew Mellon, created the Acheson Graphite and Carborundum Corporation. It was due to Edward Acheson’s experimentation with tungsten that enabled fellow inventor and lifelong friend Thomas Edison to invent the light bulb, and it was due to their friendship that the Acheson family began spending winters in St. Petersburg starting in the 1920’s. Mrs. Stuart spent her life traveling the world studying art before deciding to permanently relocate to St. Petersburg in 1959. There was only one hitch: “I cannot stand the idea of living in a city without an art museum,” she told the Times. It was then than her vision of a small, superior Museum of Fine Arts in her adopted city took shape.
In 1962, Mrs. Stuart gifted the city of Saint Petersburg $1 million for the creation of a Fine Arts museum. A Board of Trustees was chosen, who selected famed Palm Beach architect John Volk, as well as a museum secretary and, eventually, a director and advisory curator. At the same time, a few interested women were asked to establish a Women’s Committee. They drew up plans, meeting in a dilapidated building at the corner of Beach Drive and Second Avenue Northeast in downtown St. Petersburg, the future site of the Museum of Fine Arts. There is no record of how many women met on November 29, 1962. Mrs. Stuart, along with Rexford Stead, the first director, and Horace Jayne, advisory curator, set out the goals of the Women’s committee. The Margaret Acheson Stuart Society was chosen for the name, by-laws were adopted, and officers were elected.
Due to construction delays, the Museum of Fine Arts did not open until February 7, 1965. Stead asked The Stuart Society to coordinate the grand opening, saying, “It presents the Society with a fine opportunity to welcome a new era to St. Petersburg, and to welcome it with grace, sparkle, and élan.” Mrs. Stuart refused to have her name on any part of the new museum, and insisted that admission be free to all, choosing to personally underwrite all annual operating expenses.
In early 1970, Margaret Acheson Stuart donated an additional $300,000 for a new auditorium and sculpture garden. The auditorium was named “the Marly Room” after the Hudson River estate that Mrs. Stuart sold to secure the necessary construction funds. She stood as president of the museum, choosing to operate discretely behind the scenes, until her death in 1980.
By the mid 1980’s, the museum’s growing art collection made storage space inadequate and a second floor was added in 1989. On February 23, 2008, a $21 million addition, the Hazel Hough Wing, had its grand opening. As with the original opening of the museum in 1965, The Stuart Society coordinated the celebration.
The Stuart Society annually presents five fundraising events to benefit the Museum of Fine Arts and since its inception, over $3 million has been raised. Today, the MFA boasts over 14,000 works of art from antiquity to the present, and is dedicated to serving all people by pursuing the standards of excellence set by Mrs. Stuart through superior collections, exhibitions, and educational programs for its diverse and loyal audiences.