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Six years later, art museum is at square one

What has plagued plans for Tampa's museum? Leadership changes, rising construction costs and other concerns.

Published August 19, 2006

TAMPA - In the past six years, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Savannah have planned and completed construction of multimillion dollar art museums.

In the same time, Tampa has spent nearly $7-million toward a new building for the Tampa Museum of Art, and right now has nothing more than a possible location and a rough sketch .

What's Tampa's problem?

Some museum experts and observers say the effort here has been stymied by a change of mayors with vastly different priorities and management styles. That shift in political winds is complicated by the museum's status as a city department. And some say the current mayor, Pam Iorio, has exercised unprecedented control over the museum's affairs.

"You need a consensus between the government and private patrons who share a joint vision for a museum to go forward," said Jason Kaufman, chief correspondent for the Art Newspaper. "Wealthy people don't want politicians telling them what to do and how to do it. A city has to recognize that people for the most part who are involved with museums know a lot more about them than government officials."

On Tuesday, Iorio unveiled a proposal to build a new art museum at Curtis Hixon Park next to the William F. Poe parking garage and a planned Children's Museum. It's the fourth museum concept on the table in 18 months.

The effort began in 2000 with Mayor Dick Greco, whose time in office was characterized by big-ticket projects. He committed $27-million to a cultural arts district downtown that would include a new art museum. In 2002, he signed off on an approximately $6-million contract with renowned architect Rafael Vinoly to design a showy new museum on a prominent spot on Ashley Drive. Greco admitted he knew little about art, but said the design's "wow" factor would create a signature building for downtown.

Museum leaders began to raise the money not covered by the city's $27-million. Groundbreaking was scheduled for 2003.

But in March of that year, Iorio was elected mayor after campaigning on a pledge to bolster the arts in Tampa, but also to do more to improve neighborhoods.

Iorio also inherited from Greco and previous mayors a $26.2-million annual obligation to pay off construction debts for the Centro Ybor entertainment complex, the Florida Aquarium, the Tampa Convention Center and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

The museum project made Iorio nervous.

Museum officials had raised only $10-million, and construction costs were estimated at $59.3-million. The 150,000-square-foot building would be expensive to operate.

"I've come in with a more realistic view of the city's finances and what sustains an organization over the long haul," she said.

Iorio didn't want the city to get stuck bailing the museum out of construction or operating cost overruns.

So she took control.

She delayed construction of the museum until leaders could raise more money. She required them to come up with a business plan, and bolster reserves.

Some board members accused Iorio of creating hurdles for them to jump. She, in turn, talked about fiscal responsibility.

Museum leaders said they wanted autonomy. The two sides devised an agreement to give the museum independence and limit the city's contributions to operating costs.

"The museum can control its destiny better," said board member Hal Flowers, plus it's an easier sell for fundraising. "People don't want to give money to a city department; they want to give to an art museum."

The agreement would not be signed until the museum raised enough money to build the new museum and increased its endowment. It remains on the table.

"We want as a city to be assured that the museum is moving in the best interest of the taxpayers," Iorio said. "I wish someone had made that endowment a requirement of the Florida Aquarium 10 years ago."

Meanwhile, construction costs were skyrocketing nationally, and estimates to build the Vinoly design swelled to $72-million. The museum's bank switched ownership, complicating negotiations.

Ultimately, the Vinoly plan collapsed.

Iorio's main concern was not exposing the city to big debt. But with Vinoly off the table, she didn't back away from her involvement in the museum.

Within months, Iorio suggested moving the museum to downtown's 100-year-old federal courthouse, but that idea died amid public criticism.

Meanwhile, museum director Emily Kass abruptly resigned. Kass was hired by Greco in 1996 after a national search and with input from museum trustees, said former board member Marshall Rousseau.

Iorio pushed to replace Kass with Ken Rollins, taking advantage of the fact that the city pays most of the museum director's salary.

Rollins is well-respected in the local arts community, credited with boosting the profile of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Pinellas.

Among his duties: help the museum develop a business plan.

"We were handed Ken," said board vice chairwoman Sara Richter. "We were told Ken was her choice to be the acting director and we were told what his salary was."

Last August, Iorio appointed a site selection team to explore options for a new location, but told them downtown's waterfront park, where the museum is now, was off limits. She had plans to expand the green space there and create an activity center for the growing residential community downtown.

The team suggested moving the museum into a distinctive, vacant office building at Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive, even though the USF Contemporary Art Museum had explored that possibility years earlier and determined it unworkable.

Iorio agreed to use the city's remaining $20-million to buy and retrofit the building for the museum.

When board president Cornelia Corbett presented the proposal to her trustees, she acknowledged it wasn't an ideal solution, but it would work.

Months later, the proposal failed because of cost concerns.

Iorio sent out an e-mail to museum board members on Tuesday proposing the latest site -- back in the park.

Although current and former board members say they like the site, they also say they were blindsided by the announcement. And some are frustrated that Iorio continues to exercise so much control of the museum.

"We have always had a wonderful working relationship with the city," said Richter. "They've always let us be independent to a certain degree."

It's different with Iorio, she said.

For any big capital project that involves public-private partnerships there is a "moment when you take that leap of faith," said former board member Richard Lehfeldt, who recently resigned from the board when a job took him out of state. "You could have applied a rigorous fiscally conservative calculus whether to go forward with the Performing Arts Center or not, and you might have decided not to do it. But now in retrospect we can look back and say what geniuses we are."

Now, he said, the board is exactly where it was six years ago.

"I have a fair amount of personal and professional remorse that it didn't get further. It's painful," he said. "But I can't put the blame on any one person."

Tampa's struggles are not unique. Last year, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., scrapped an expansion designed by architect Frank Gehry as too costly. In Detroit, where the city owned the Institute of Arts building and its collection, the trustees and staff battled for years with government officials.

"The city relented and the trustees have a lot more power now," said Kaufman, of The Art Newspaper.

Board member Fradique Rocha said Iorio has a tough job.

"The mayor has to balance building the museum and the arts in Tampa with the economic realities of our times and the other obligations of government in our community," he said.

Flowers, who chairs the board's business committee, said he likes the latest plan and hopes it will be the last.

"No, not every city stumbles around like we have," he said. "But I think we've fallen on a pretty good site."


July 2000: Mayor Dick Greco and the Tampa City Council approve spending $27-million of Community Investment Tax money on a cultural arts district, which will include a new art museum

January 2002: Tampa Museum of Art launches capital campaign

April 2002: City Council and Greco approve approximately $6-million museum design by architect Rafael Vinoly

January 2003: Museum pledge balance: $5.3-million

January 2003: Construction estimate: $44-million

April 2003: Mayor Pam Iorio takes office

April 2003: Construction estimates rise to $59-million

May 2004: Museum pledge balance: $18.6-million

November 2004: Consultant concludes that even with $10-million endowment, museum will operate with a deficit.

March 30, 2005: Museum leaders cannot get financing for construction; Vinoly design shelved

April 1, 2005: Museum pledge balance: $47-million, according to museum officials

April 19, 2005: Museum director Emily Kass resigns

April 28, 2005: Iorio suggests old federal courthouse as museum site

July 21, 2005: Courthouse concept shelved

July 25, 2005: Ken Rollins named acting museum director

August 2005: Working group selected to evaluate museum sites

Nov. 10, 2005: Working group recommends vacant office building as museum site

February 2006: City and museum officials announce plan to move museum to the Pavilion building; City Council approves concept

Aug. 15, 2006: Iorio says Pavilion won't work; offers site on Curtis Hixon Park

[Last modified August 20, 2006, 08:48:06]

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