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Tampa Museum leader's top art project: creating lasting success

Published October 30, 2005

TAMPA - Ken Rollins had a storm to deal with. Hurricane Wilma was chugging slowly across the Yucatan Peninsula, expected to turn toward Florida, and the big issue of the day, Oct. 20, was whether to remove paintings and statues from the Tampa Museum of Art for safekeeping.

In a sense, it was all routine for the interim director who is barely a month into the job. That's because Rollins is the head of a museum that has been in a storm's eye of conflict and controversy ever since an ambitious plan for a new museum collapsed in March - a scenario Cornelia Corbett, chairwoman of the board, called "devastating."

Gone was the hope for a glamorous building designed by Rafael Vinoly that museum leaders had raised more than $40-million to construct. In question was a $20-million commitment from the city.

In the weeks leading up to that debacle and the months since, the veneer of tact and solidarity between the city, which owns the museum land and building, and museum leaders, who control its operation, began to crack. Museum director Emily Kass resigned. Several museum trustees publicly criticized Mayor Pam Iorio for appearing to undermine the $76-million project that failed because of questions over financing. Trustees were faulted for focusing too much on money for bricks and mortar instead of building an endowment that would give the museum needed financial stability.

Everybody bemoaned poor museum attendance.

Relations did not improve with Iorio's attempts to pre-empt a new site search by announcing her wish to move the museum, now at 600 N Ashley Drive, to the historic Federal Courthouse several blocks away. That plan was also scrapped after a report analyzed the courthouse as problematic and public forums delivered forceful opposition.

Both sides sparred over the riverfront land that Iorio wants for a park and that trustees assumed for years could remain the museum address.

And then there was the director's job. Taking on the search-and-hire role, which is usually the responsibility of a museum's board, Iorio handpicked her own candidate. Some trustees felt railroaded into accepting the choice since the city pays most of the director's salary.

That's the psychic terrain Ken Rollins surveys from his spare, modernist office overlooking the Hillsborough River. He knows it is a temporary place for him.

Rollins, 63, has been hired for two years, a timetable he considers absolute, entertaining no discussion of becoming the permanent director. To do so, he understands, would mute the urgency of the daunting task given him by the mayor: to rebuild museum morale and public confidence and to restart the effort of relocating the museum.

"I do not underestimate the challenges," he says.

Rollins, who earns $159,000 and recently bought a condominium in Ybor City, considers the job as a sort of legacy.

"I lived here starting at 18 for many years. Tampa's always been like home. If I can come back here and contribute something, and work with museum supports to get the museum back to where they all want it to be," he said, "I would see this as my swan song."

"I think Ken is a good stabilizing influence," Iorio said. "He's methodical. He's been a museum professional for many years. And he relishes the challenge."

Rollins has had his share of professional challenges. A Navy lieutenant who saw combat in Vietnam, he returned to school after his tour for a master's degree in sculpture and ceramics. He got into arts administration because it helped pay the bills after he married and had a son, now an architect in Boston. He has been divorced for many years.

After rising through the ranks to become director of the DeLand Museum, he was hired to lead the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland in the 1980s. He earned a reputation for getting projects done, building consensus and fostering art by contemporary artists, especially Florida artists. The Polk grew from a small local facility to a respected regional museum in a spacious new building.

He has always been politically savvy, getting state grants for his museums, making important connections as president of the Florida Art Museum Directors Association and chairman of the Florida Association of Museums Foundation.

Rollins became executive director of an arts center in Belleair in the 1990s. Under his leadership, it has become the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in the Pinewood Cultural Park in Largo. Negotiating the turf issues between the old guard in Clearwater who wanted to stay put and newer players who wanted the museum more centrally located could have been a warm-up for his role at the Tampa Museum.

Of recent events there he said, "I liken the situation to a death in the family. There's a necessary amount of mourning that has to go on. It's not uncommon for there to be anger also, not uncommon to attempt to assign blame. Hopefully I can be helpful in getting us on track for a new vision."

The new vision must include a new building, ASAP. The current one is deteriorating and in need of major repairs that the mayor said "are not going to happen" because it will be demolished within a few years.

Rollins has been part of the site selection committee composed of city, museum, business and civic representatives, meeting almost every week.

"We're looking at 10 to 12 sites; about half are city-owned properties," he said.

The goal is to cull the list to one or two by the end of November. Neither Rollins nor Iorio would name front-runners, but a leading contender is said to be a narrow strip slightly west of the museum in front of Kiley Park. It would please supporters who want to keep the museum on Ashley Drive.

"I don't underestimate many trustees' keen interest in this site but I do think many are open-minded to consider other options," he said.

He and Corbett concede that the site's size would mandate a multistory building, which would be costly. Any location, Rollins said, would require a new building that would be more modest than the initial design, though, Corbett said, "common sense tells me it will be as expensive as the original plan."

No one, not even Rollins and the mayor, expects it to be finished before he leaves in 2007.

Fraught as it is, the process of finding a location is probably the easiest item on Rollins' loaded agenda. All the money for the museum's construction, plus a healthy endowment for its operation, must be in hand before one shovelful of earth is turned, says Iorio, a mandate Rollins agrees with.

"It's crucial this time around," he said, "so that when we open the doors we can assure its future financial stability."

The museum had 142 donors to the capital campaign. Only one-third of them have paid their pledges in full. Of those who have pledged money, about 30 have asked to be released from their pledges and another 30 or so want to wait and see what Plan B will look like. Only one donor has asked for a refund, Rollins said.

"I'm in the process of visiting every donor to the capital campaign," he says, "to tell me concerns, frustrations and what it will take to recommit."

Perhaps the most difficult job for Rollins will be finding a temporary place for the museum. The mayor wants to begin park development by 2007, which means the museum must vacate before it has a permanent home. A good deal of money, he said, will probably have to be spent on a space so that it meets museum standards regarding humidity, temperature and light control, adequate security and storage space and, of course, wall space, so the museum can continue to qualify for traveling exhibitions.

"There's not a building just sitting out there," he said. "I'm actively involved in looking."

Rollins is benefitting from a strong exhibition schedule put in place before his arrival, the current one featuring Georgia O'Keeffe, which has drawn good crowds, and the upcoming one with art by Maurice Sendak, which was a big hit in New York last year. He's negotiating a Keith Haring show for 2006 that should also be popular.

The big question is whether Rollins, who has the mayor's support, can inspire the same confidence in the board of trustees, a group Corbett described as "a very caring board, probably more involved in the museum than those at his other museums. There's an adjustment."

"A number of them truly want to get beyond this situation," Rollins said. "The hurt and anger won't simply go away in the short term but if we can get on the same page for a new site . . ."

And serving two masters - the mayor and the trustees - "isn't ideal," he said.

Raising millions of dollars. Developing a new design. Finding temporary digs and moving the collection. Bringing everybody back to the table.

All this in two years?

"I believe we can get a site and preliminary design. Relaunch the campaign. Get the community excited again. And I believe we can finish the campaign effort."

"Ken's a man on a mission," Corbett said. "We're moving forward. And that feels good."

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or

[Last modified November 2, 2005, 08:40:10]

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