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A museum to define dreams of downtown


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000

It's a Sunday summer afternoon in Tampa, a time that in other cities people go to museums. At the Tampa Museum of Art, Tom Kettner, a painter, is giving a talk on "underCURRENT/overVIEW 4," a show of work by Tampa Bay artists. It seems like a good time to see the show and maybe time travel into a future Sunday afternoon when the museum will no longer be a long, low shoebox miles back from the street but a new, highly visible building in the downtown Cultural Arts District.

On Ashley Street, past the little park where about a dozen men sit on benches, some with their bedrolls next to them, there are few cars and only one pedestrian, a 30-ish man with a precision haircut, baggy khaki shorts and a shirt that mimics a guayabera. Probably from out of town, probably lost.

The underground parking lot, full during the week, is almost empty and today it's free, no extra charge to park next to a smallish lake thanks to the leaks in the roof. From there, it's a circuitous trip up stairs and ramps to the museum.

Inside, in the gallery, there is -- surprise -- an urban scene. About 20 or 30 people are gathering to follow Kettner, a bearded man wearing a collarless gray shirt, as he comments on the artwork. It's a casual talk and an interesting way to see the show. For instance you might not have known that the materials used in Margaret Steward's Mutually Arising include golf tees and nylon stockings, or that Suzanne Camp Crosby staged her photograph for Just Another Roadside Attraction by setting up her toy dinosaurs next to lifesize dinosaurs at a theme park.

Outside the museum's front doors, it's pouring rain. No matter, downtown on a Sunday afternoon there is not a single place to go.

That will all change.

At least that's the intention of the proposed Cultural Arts District, a strip west of Ashley Street that runs from Kennedy past the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

A new building for the art museum and a history museum are the definite parts of the plan so far.

A New York firm has already done a study that calls for a $45-million, 125,000-square-foot art museum that's three times the size of the current building. It's easy to see why it's needed: The location is terrible. It's on the river, the artwork is stored 6 feet above sea level in a flood zone and it's awkwardly accessible from the street. Gallery space is cramped for a large show, and the museum lacks the amenities people have come to expect -- a cafe, an extensive museum store. But the greatest need is for space to accommodate educational programs for kids.

The building will be closer to Ashley Street, where it can be seen.

Will it be something to see?

Museum director Emily Kass says it will.

Nationally, new museum buildings are showcases for architecture. The Getty in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the under-construction Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati -- all have received international notice for the design of their buildings even before they opened.

"It needs to be a major statement," Kass says. She envisions a landmark, a 21st-century equivalent of the University of Tampa's Plant Hall. Unlike the museums mentioned, designed by internationally known architects, Tampa's museum building could be something very different designed by a new talent.

In the art talk, Kettner, who works at the museum and is keenly aware of its limitations, nevertheless noted the attractiveness of the particular gallery space where this show is hung -- the smooth whitewashed floors, the moveable white walls. He also mentioned that the art would be no less fine in a lesser space.

Or in a greater one. Art does not need stunning new buildings or a specially designated district to survive, but it needs such things to thrive and establish a strong presence in a community. The quality of the art inside its walls will ultimately determine the success of a museum -- as well as the cultural quotient of a city. But first you have to get people through the door.

- Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. Her column appears occasionally.

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