When you visit the Tampa Museum of Art, you won't find at the front desk, as you would at most museums, a map of the galleries. That's a conscious decision, part of a subtle but consistent plan for what you see there and how you see it.
"We try to make connections when possible," says executive director Todd Smith.
Right now, the museum has a superb and beautiful collection of collages by Romare Bearden up through May 6. It anchors three more exhibitions: "John Cage's 33 1/3 Performed by Audience," paintings by William Pachner and "Cyborgs," collages by Don ZanFagna.
You might not see a relationship among the four at first, but it's there.
"Almost all of the works were done in the 1960s," Smith says, the era in which the most well-known artist was Andy Warhol. "We wanted to present a perspective that shows not all important art in the Sixties was pop art."
So we see Bearden's very personal narratives, Pachner's emotional abstract paintings, ZanFagna's sci-fi fantasies and Cage's sound installation with audience participation that debuted in 1969. They stand on their own as art while representing important social and cultural movements of the time.
Smith has organized all shows with that connective principle since the new museum opened in 2010 with a large exhibition of works by Henri Matisse. That show, in which the majority of the art involved his treatment of the female form, was complemented by Garry Winogrand's photographs of women and by Maria Friberg's video of men emerging from bed — a witty reversal of male artists portraying women in the other two shows.
The common threads are so understated they are almost subliminal, so there's never an annoying "theme park" feel to them. Also part of the opening lineup were sculptures and installations from contemporary supercollector Martin Z. Margulies, which spoke to urban life (the museum occupies a downtown city block) and transitions (a nod to moving to the new building).
Are these links necessary? No, though they seem especially relevant given the museum's design, in which multiple galleries and their art can be seen at once.
"Our galleries are one big circle," Smith says. "So we never give out maps. We want visitors to feel they're flowing from one gallery to the next with no specific place to begin or end."
That philosophy came to Smith during the year of construction when Smith was giving hard-hat tours of the museum. There were two issues that had been perplexing for years. The museum's exhibition and collecting mission was informally concentrated on modern and contemporary art though it had only a small permanent collection of such art. Yet, oddly, it did have an outstanding collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. Reconciling the two was problematic.
"It was like a light bulb every time I gave a tour, before there was any art," Smith says. "It was this idea of gathering art to tell individual stories in each gallery that were episodes in art history. We didn't have to own it. We decided not to dedicate galleries full time to the permanent collection because we felt there were more stories we wanted to tell. The permanent collection became one of the tools we could use to tell those stories."
Ideas trumped chronology in arranging the art, which helped integrate the antiquities, which do have their own gallery. It sits at the top of the dramatic staircase connecting the lobby to the galleries. Objects are clustered not by age but by theme. Currently, works are grouped by similar function or aesthetics.
That show will segue into other current or upcoming shows. One is contemporary figurative sculpture from the Margulies Collection. From a certain perspective, you can see the centuries-old marble statue of Aphrodite juxtaposed with works by Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson and Willem de Kooning.
"It's a reminder that the figure never left Western art," Smith says.
"Utility and Aesthetics in Ancient Art" also ties into a new acquisition, Erik Levine's 14-foot Hand-Held, a massive plywood "scoop" that occupies an entire gallery and celebrates the utilitarian in monumental scale.
And both will support the big show that replaces the Bearden. "A Hundred Years — A Hundred Chairs," opening May 19, comes from the Vitra Design Museum and is a visual timeline of design during the 20th century using chairs as examples. Many of them are iconic, but all were meant to be utilitarian.
"These connections may go unnoticed or might be seen only at various points. Sometimes they're explicit, sometimes not," Smith says.
"It sounds cliched, but I think of museums as cabinets of curiosities. Our mission says we're here for people who are curious. We're willing to be eclectic and acknowledge our visitors' diverse interests."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.