A vocal group of art supporters, combined with vigorous growth in galleries, puts St. Petersburg in the spotlight.
By MARY ANN MARGER, Times Art Critic
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 1999
It was no earthquake, but there was a slight shift detected in the geographical center of the local art world in 1999.
Historically, Sarasota had long been the leader of the greater bay area's visual arts, thanks to John Ringling's efforts, which stimulated growth of an artistic community and galleries long after he was gone. Behind that lead, Tampa and St. Petersburg kept pace with each other. But with the loss of most of Ybor City's art community and the ACC Crafts Show, and the self-generating action of downtown St. Petersburg's art supporters and galleries, leaders in Tampa and Sarasota have been saying that St. Petersburg is the place to be.
Things could shift again -- or better, they could strengthen all around. It all depends on whether artists, centers, museums and galleries can maintain support from the general community in the form of individual action: more collectors, more understanding of what to collect, more involvement, greater attendance, greater financial support.
Highlights of the year:
BEST SHOW OF 1999: "Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art 1969-96," Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota. Through 20 relevant and timely artworks from the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, we explored challenging and diverse expressions that made us think.
BEST ART NEWS OF 1999: Relocation of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art from Belleair to a new contemporary facility in Largo and renovation of the Arts Center in St. Petersburg, with future phases of both beginning soon. Add them to last year's expansion of the Dunedin Fine Art Center, and Pinellas County can count three showplaces emphasizing today's art through both exhibits and education. All are free. Hillsborough County, are you paying attention?
SECOND BEST NEWS: The establishment of Second Saturday, a monthly open house by a score of galleries and art centers in downtown St. Petersburg.
MOST EXHILARATING ARTWORK CREATED RIGHT HERE: Passage II, a nine-foot-wide floor installation by Hoang Van Bui, on view in "East of the Sun" at Scarfone/Hartley Galleries this fall. The artist, born in Vietnam and now living in Tampa, uses an economy of symbols to express deep passion about big ideas. The use of basic iconography doesn't reduce his themes; it magnifies them.
DUMBEST DECISION: Rejection of The Tree of Life, a painting depicting Adam and Eve in the buff by Kevin Grass, which had already been juried into the Pinellas County Arts Council's exhibit that opened in October at Ruth Eckerd Hall. PCAC director Judith Powers Jones and visual arts consultant Genevieve Linnehan thought it might offend people coming to see performances. (As if to make up for the bad call, the PCAC bought another work by Grass for its permanent collection and recently granted him an Artist Resource Fund award.)
BEST SHOW TO SEE RIGHT NOW: Tough call. Judy Chicago's retrospective is a relatively objective view of art known for stirring the emotions (Gulf Coast Museum of Art). Linda McCartney's photos of '60s rock 'n' rollers evoke nostalgia (Tampa Museum of Art). Robert Gwathmey's paintings and Winslow Homer's prints are sure crowd-pleasers (Museum of Fine Arts).
BEST PRIVATELY OWNED GALLERIES SHOWING THE KIND OF EXPERIMENTAL ART THAT RARELY PAYS THE BILLS: Fusion, 540 Central Ave., and Szilage Gallery at 145, 145 Third St. N, both in St. Petersburg, and Studio Gallery on Azeele, 3707 Azeele St., Tampa. Since we no longer have a not-for-profit alternative space -- the Florida Center for Contemporary Art has been defunct for years -- we need venues for those artists in limbo between formal education and museum recognition. Salt Creek Artworks, an artists' studio and gallery space, has a similar mission.
HOW TO STAY ON THE CUTTING EDGE AND STAY IN THE BAY AREA: University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum. At least half a dozen artists in the Carnegie International's current prestigious survey of contemporary art have previously exhibited at USF's Contemporary Art Museum.