Art museum goal: Thrive in the night

Published May 18, 2007

The Tampa Museum of Art's future has been the focus of great debate of late.

So last week's news - the newest architect unveiled his design, and museum honchos actually like it - bodes well for the venue's destiny.

Still, building a $32.5-million, 68, 000-square-foot museum won't do you a lot of good if people don't visit.

That's why the museum at 600 N Ashley St. has focused on attracting a younger demographic through its Art After Dark series.

The monthly series had run for about four years on Thursdays, but took on greater life last spring, when it moved to Friday nights the third Friday of each month, specifically.

These days, the event draws an average of 300 patrons, who check out the museum's paintings, sculptures and other pieces while grooving to live bands, listening to spoken word performances and - not incidentally - enjoying the cash bar.

"It's definitely intended for that 21-to-35 demographic, " said Ann Marie Moulin, the museum's special events and membership manager. "And we've definitely seen our student membership grow."

The theme for this weekend's event is a little light on specificity - it's called simply "Art Spring: A Celebration of the Arts." But it does have some new wrinkles.

For example, this Art After Dark is a two-nighter, running from 8 to 11 p.m. today and Saturday. Six local bands will perform, three on each day.

(Full disclosure: the Times and its sister publication, tbt*, are among the event's sponsors.)

Tonight, the media lounge will showcase the local independent films Hooligan's Valley and Farewell Freida. Saturday adds more independent films and a series of spoken word performances.

Art After Dark can expose such artists to very different audiences, said Monae, a spoken word performer from Tampa who performed at the event last year. She'll perform again Saturday.

"You see a lot of people who wouldn't normally come out to a spoken word event, " said Monae, 33, whose real name is Theresa Mitchell. "And we got young people, old people, children, people from all ethnic backgrounds to hear all our many styles."

That's part of the diversity the Art After Dark organizers consider an asset: Visual arts, music and films all have broad fan bases, and this provides oral poetry the same exposure.

"If you've never been to a spoken word event, this is a great way to see a bunch of styles all in one place, " Monae said.

The event is free for museum members. Nonmembers can get in for $10 either night or pay $15 for both. The museum also provides light munchies and the cash bar.

Musically, Saturday night's headliner is Auto!Automatic!!, a three-man Tampa band that plays - well, better let guitarist Brian Larsen explain that part ...

"It's all instrumental - we call it technical instrumental math-rock, " Larsen said.

The band played Art After Dark in January. "We were pretty surprised with the turnout, because we weren't sure what to expect, " he said. "We're kinda used to playing in the bar scene, so playing in the museum was really different."

The band is used to such typical bar band venues as Ybor City's New World Brewery and Crowbar, so Art After Dark was a change.

"It was a really friendly crowd, a larger crowd, not something we'd normally be exposed to, " Larsen said. "When they asked us to do it again, we were definitely up for it."

Larsen appreciated the diversity of the audiences who gave Auto!Automatic!! a listen. "I'd say it was the perfect mix of younger people who wouldn't normally come out to the museum, " he said, "and, well, people who would normally come to the museum."

The event also focuses attention on redevelopment plans on and around this stretch between Ashley Drive and the Hillsborough River, a high priority to city administration.

There's the Riverwalk, the Children's Museum, and plans to improve Curtis Hixon Park and restore neighboring Kiley Gardens.

While the new Museum of Art is being built, Moulin said, Art After Dark will continue in an interim space until the building is ready.

The event continues with big plans for next month. It's teaming with the AMP Carnival of the Arts, billed as "an interactive festival to promote awareness of downtown Tampa's cultural arts scene."

AMP stands for Art, Movies and Performance, because it's a collaboration between three young professional groups associated with downtown venues: Avant Garde (the museum), Balcony Club (Tampa Theatre) and the Producers (Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center).

Gar Urette, chairman of the Producers, said teaming with Art After Dark was a natural fit.

"We have an annual event that brings together the three groups, and we rotate it among the three venues, " he said. "This year it's the museum's turn to host, and it seemed like a natural to merge it with Art After Dark. Now that we'll be getting so many more young professionals downtown, this will become a cultural destination."

Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431.