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As new home of the Tampa Museum of Art rises, inside peek shows promise

TAMPA

Success, so the saying goes, depends on your backbone, not your wishbone. • Sometimes, success requires both. • Example: the Tampa Museum of Art. For too many years a controversial dream, it's finally acquiring real substance, because a persistent few had both vision and will, wishbone and backbone. • The new Tampa Museum of Art, under construction in downtown Tampa, is beginning to look like something. When completed, it really will be something: 66,000 square feet that includes almost 9,000 square feet of permanent exhibition space and 5,000 for traveling shows. • We'll have to wait a few months longer than we expected for completion of the $36 million project; its opening has been moved to early 2010 rather than late this fall, according to director Todd Smith. He says the delay comes because several new gifts totaling about $700,000 have made possible the addition of exterior lighting to the building's facade, which museum leaders didn't think they could afford until a later phase. The fiber-optic lights are made in China and take at least a month to fabricate, hence the timetable change. • Still, the drywall will soon go up, and senior superintendent Darrel Bolden of Skanska Construction says he plans to turn on the air-conditioning by June 8, meaning everything will be enclosed and finish work inside can begin. • Smith and Bolden took us on a hard hat tour so we could get a look at the structure's elaborate underpinnings while they're still visible. The economy may be shaky, but the museum, as you will see, is not.

Art above the river

The views from the glassed-in lobby floor and various perches on upper levels are lovely. Architect Stanley Saitowitz sited the museum to take advantage of its spot on a 14-foot rise that slopes gently down to a seawall along the Hillsborough River.

The building is imposing, designed to hold its own on a less-than-ideal site. Not even the Poe parking garage, its homely bulk snuggling unfortunately close, diminishes the monolithic feel of the great charcoal-colored box that seems to float above the ground. You can see from the rendering that the severity of those dark aluminum panels will be mitigated by a perforated aluminum screen that wraps around the exterior and is partially lit at night with changing fiber-optic patterns. Because of recent donations, Saitowitz was able to reintroduce an early plan to extend the screen into the interior for more visual interest.

Soaring spaces

That interior, which is still very much an exterior open to the elements, is grandly proportioned. Walking through it, you can see Saitowitz's love of symmetry and the classical elegance it gives the building, contemporary as the design is.

The most interesting part of that design is the cantilevered engineering that thrusts the upper part of the building outward along its south and west sides with no visible means of support.

"It's a lot like a suspension bridge," says Bolden. "Everything's supported by the roof beams that are connected to the elevator shafts," massive columns of concrete and steel.

The concept is not new but works well for this site. And you appreciate the engineering required for the leverage and distribution of so much weight along the (for now) exposed steel beams the thickness of an elephant's thigh.

Lobbies are the first impressions in our relationship with a building's interior. So common sense as much as aesthetics dictates a major commitment of vertical as well as horizontal volume to it. The Tampa Museum of Art won't disappoint. An atrium soars about 60 feet to the roof, lit by 16 skylights. Floors are polished concrete embedded with stones, resembling pale terrazzo. The fixtures will be aluminum and glass with no wood in sight, minimalist and serene. If you must have a space hog, good to have an attractive one.

The galleries are, of course, the heart of a museum, and those of the Tampa museum, on the second level, will be double-height, rising to the roof. Each of the five for permanent collections will be 42 feet square and 18 feet high, including one for sculpture that is open on the south side.

A long, continuous space of 5,000 square feet (that can be separated into smaller components) is devoted to traveling exhibitions. That's the standard size for the kind of exhibitions the museum would bring in. (It's also about the same amount of space the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg added in its new wing for special exhibitions.)

Planning for the future

In looking at the floor plans, you might be surprised that so much area is dedicated to "back of house" operations, especially storage and receiving. But it's needed to qualify for the better traveling shows. Borrowed art arrives in many large crates and must be acclimatized on site to the correct temperature. Once uncrated, the art has to be examined and catalogued. And then those expensive custom crates need to be stored for a show's duration; some museums rent space off site, which gets expensive.

Some space, such as the cafe, is considered temporary, with the hope that down the road, an addition that's part of the master plan can be realized. It will have more community and educational space and a full-fledged restaurant. For now, the eatery will be a self-serve casual spot with food brought in by a caterer.

The museum has the funding to finish construction but continues to seek money for its endowment and enhancements. The economy has taken an obvious toll on donors and on the museum's operating budget. In its small temporary building in the West Tampa neighborhood, it hasn't had notable exhibitions and attendance has plummeted. Membership remains flat, according to Smith, but he says all that was anticipated. The delayed opening was not and Smith, without the revenue bounce that would have come later this year, had to cut the budget. Three positions were eliminated, including the curator of exhibitions and development director. For now, he assumes responsibility for both.

A growing reputation

The biggest question for the Tampa museum, the one that has persisted throughout its history, is can it build a stronger permanent collection that will add luster to its reputation, attract members and visitors once the excitement of a new building wears off, and give the museum a better shot at top traveling shows?

Smith says that when taking past and perhaps future benefactors through the building at this stage, they're able to see how art will look in it, and he is hopeful that will encourage more art gifts.

He's working on a traveling exhibition schedule for 2010-11 that he also hopes will excite the corporate sponsors needed to pay for them.

Those components may seem like wishbones. But with such a good backbone taking shape, they're much more than wishful thinking.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

As new home of the Tampa Museum of Art rises, inside peek shows promise 04/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2009 4:30am]
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