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At museum, what's inside counts

Its dull building isn't the Tampa Museum of Art's only problem. There haven't been many thrills inside either.

Published April 24, 2005

TAMPA - What now for the Tampa Museum of Art?

For three years, its leaders have focused on raising money for a grand, $78-million home meant to turn the museum into the city's cultural focus. But the ambitious plan collapsed in a public battle over finances, and last week its director, Emily Kass, resigned.

So for at least the next several years, the museum will stay where it is, in an aging, awkward structure that is more Camilla Parker Bowles than Princess Diana.

Everyone involved is scrambling to come up with a new plan for the museum, the latest a renovation of the old federal courthouse four blocks from the museum's current riverfront site.

But to focus on the bricks and mortar is to miss the real issue, one that museum leaders will have to confront if they are to transform the museum from a subject of political turmoil into a center of civic pride:

Too few people know or care enough about what's in the museum to go and see it.

"People complain that there's nothing to see at the museum," Mayor Pam Iorio said in a recent interview. "Before millions are spent, they want to see what a museum can do. I don't think people have ever understood one of the basics there: What are you trying to achieve?"

The best museums are defined by what they have and do, not by their architecture. The Salvador Dali Museum, for example, is in a renovated warehouse. The Dali and the Museum of Fine Arts, both in St. Petersburg, and Sarasota's John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art all have ambitious building plans. But in all three cases, the expansions are a response to high attendance and popular shows, not a means of generating interest.

Every museum is unique, and no comparison is perfect. But at this critical time for the Tampa Museum of Art, a look at Florida institutions that, in their own ways, are making it in a tough environment offers clues to the Tampa museum's problems - and its potential.

It's all about the art

Museums earn the respect, sometimes even the love, of the public through pride in the art they display. Even if locals rarely set foot inside - and Iorio acknowledges that she can't recall visiting the Tampa museum before she became mayor - they can still appreciate a museum's presence and the benefits it brings: positive publicity and tourists that bring dollars to town.

A marquee building helps in establishing a physical presence and attracting one-time curiosity-seekers. The Tampa museum has a long history of trying and failing to attract attention by sprucing up its facade.

In the late 1980s, annual attendance was averaging more than 100,000. By 1993, it was hovering at 80,000, and then-Mayor Sandy Freedman told the Tampa City Council: "People don't know where the museum is."

The building, it was declared, was the problem. An old convention center that hid the museum from Ashley Drive was torn down. The museum's facade got a facelift. A public park was created next door.

All without much effect.

"It just doesn't have the level of visibility it should have," Emily Kass said when she became museum director in 1996. "I think we have a lot that people and visitors aren't aware of."

That 9-year-old remark could have been made last week.

Some people may not know what the Tampa museum has; others just may not be interested. The most impressive art the museum owns is an antiquities collection that is considered the finest in the southeastern United States.

But in drawing public interest, it can't compete with the Impressionists at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Dali's surrealism or the Ringling's Baroque masterpieces. Those three museums have in their collections art that people know and like, paintings they will bring visitors to see and enjoy with their families.

Winning the public trust

Permanent collections have a lot to do with public perception of a museum's worth, but so do the special, or changing, exhibitions a museum brings in.

"We never would have had to do a single thing except show our Dali collection to bring in tourists," said Dali museum director emeritus Marshall Rousseau, who instituted a special exhibitions program about 15 years ago. "But doing a show of Kenny Scharf, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol or another artist influenced by surrealism is an educational opportunity and a chance to look at the permanent collection in a new way and to attract local people."

In their single-minded pursuit of a silver-bullet building, Tampa museum leaders drifted into complacency about their special exhibits. That inertia was especially puzzling considering Kass' well-regarded exhibitions during her previous tenure as director of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and her reputation as an expert in modern and contemporary art.

Recent shows of African-American quilts and Toulouse-Lautrec posters were respectable, but they did not come close to the buzz around the Keith Haring show in 1991 or the exhibition of Princess Diana's dresses - its museum debut - in 1997.

A show about baseball several months ago was a dry lineup of Yankees memorabilia and out of place in a fine arts museum. The current exhibition is photographs by Bud Lee, a fine photographer living in Tampa but without the broad name recognition of a Robert Mapplethorpe or Richard Avedon.

The last major exhibition at the Tampa museum, meant to close out the current building in a big way, was "Magna Graecia" in 2003, a huge show of Greek antiquities that was among the best exhibitions ever organized locally.

It attracted 22,000 people.

Compare that with another prestigious, locally organized show, "Monet's London: Artists' Reflections on the Thames, 1859-1914," which closes today at St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts. An estimated 100,000 visitors have packed in during a run comparable to that of "Magna Graecia."

The academic art world praised both shows because both included loans from European museums, had a sophisticated catalog and have traveled or are on their way to at least one other, larger museum. Scholars may say a Greek amphora from 550 B.C. is as important as a painting by Claude Monet, but the lines wrapping around the Museum of Fine Arts, fairly or not, formed public perception about which show was better.

The Monet show followed an enormous crowd-pleaser at the Museum of Fine Arts, 2004's monumental Dale Chihuly studio glass show, which drew more than 150,000 visitors during an 18-week run.

It had some art purists sniffing that it was too middle-brow, but it was the kind of feel-good show that had people stretched out on their backs on a gallery floor, gazing up at a ceiling installation. It was the kind of show that drew locals and tourists who rarely set foot in a museum, shaping its reputation in the public's mind as a place worth standing in line to visit.

Few museums can afford the financial risks and pressures of hosting blockbusters all the time, and most changing exhibitions are more modest. The Museum of Fine Arts is not planning a Chihuly-level exhibition in 2006 and expects annual attendance will be about 100,000, not much more than the 87,000 the Tampa museum drew last year. Yet the cachet and good will produced by blockbusters have staying power and often motivate people to return to a museum to see interesting but less glamorous exhibitions.

Could the Tampa museum pull off an exhibition like Monet or Chihuly? Probably not at this point, even though its operating budget is larger, $3.2-million compared to the Museum of Fine Art's $2.8-million, and even though it has more full-time staff, 29 compared to 16.

Most important, it lacks the clout or track record these days for such a coup.

Having art that someone else wants to borrow ups a museum's standing and leverage for its own borrowing. The Ringling, in possession of the best Baroque art collection in the United States, gets hundreds of loan requests each year and agrees to 20 or 30, said associate curator Joanna Weber. A recent loan was to the Louvre in Paris. In turn, the museum could probably borrow art from almost any other museum in the world.

"You develop a rapport with other institutions," Weber said. "We are on the receiving end of a lot of prestige because of our loans."

The Museum of Fine Arts is sending its Cezanne to New York's Museum of Modern Art for a show. Several of the Dali's prized paintings are at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's retrospective of the artist.

In the quid pro quo world of lending among museums, none of the Tampa museum's collection, even its antiquities, has the value needed to negotiate an important Impressionist or Old Masters exhibition, the kind of traditional art that can be a cash cow and reputation builder.

The art of the possible

The Tampa museum can't afford a buying spree that would ramp up its collection in the manner of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's $45-million purchase of Duccio's Madonna and Child.

But it can continue to collect contemporary art, which can be expensive but is more affordable than Old Masters and far more available.

Although its antiquities have received most of the attention, the Tampa museum has collections of studio glass, photography, 20th century and contemporary art, and a large archive of work and papers by the 20th century sculptor C. Paul Jennewein. The aggressiveness its leaders have shown in raising $42-million for the scuttled building project would be well-directed toward more acquisitions.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami has proved that community support doesn't have to hinge on a great permanent collection or expensive changing exhibitions.

MOCA should not be the success it has become in just 10 years. It has a small permanent collection. It does not usually take or generate traveling shows. Yet it is considered one of the most innovative museums of its size and kind in the United States. Its membership base, one of the measurements of a museum's importance to its community, is 4,000, almost twice that of the Tampa museum.

Director Bonnie Clearwater, a respected art historian and author, has developed MOCA's reputation using her own standing among colleagues, which enables her to attract first-rate artists.

She curates most of MOCA's shows, which number eight to 10 annually. In addition to showing emerging artists who usually go on to national or international prominence, she uses her extensive network to rope in important 20th century artists. In 2000, for example, she put together the first comprehensive show of Frank Stella's work since a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988.

"A large percentage of our operating budget goes to programming," she said, explaining that MOCA has kept its building cost low mostly by doing a lot with a small staff (eight full time).

But like antiquities, contemporary art, no matter how prestigious, can be a hard sell to the average museum visitor, a challenge Clearwater has tackled through innovative programs.

"Our local community takes great pride in our reputation," she said. "We put an enormous emphasis on educating our visitors about what they're seeing and how to understand it, on our local membership having a sense of belonging and ownership."

The Tampa museum managed to raise $43-million in pledges toward a new building. That seems to indicate that it could have found the money to purchase a showy new work of art and rent better exhibitions, which might have built more public enthusiasm for the museum and muted municipal meddling in the building program.

The museum may be learning. Its leaders are scrambling to put together an exhibition schedule for the coming year. Emily Kass, who wants it nailed down before her departure next month, said, "It should be exciting."

Yes, many could say, it should.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or

[Last modified April 24, 2005, 10:58:48]

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