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New director Todd Smith ready to take Tampa Museum of Art to next level

TAMPA

The crisp oxford shirt is much like the man who wears it: professional, assured and, somehow, reassuring. As the recently appointed director of the Tampa Museum of Art, Todd Smith would be expected to have the first two qualities in abundance. It's the third, unexpected one that is especially important now for an institution both interrupted and in progress.

The museum has been without a permanent director since April 2005, when Emily Kass resigned amid a fractious standoff between museum leaders and Mayor Pam Iorio over a new $72-million building. Further ill will accrued when Ken Rollins was hired as interim director by the mayor, rather than the board, as was customary. Iorio floated ideas for alternative locations that many board members didn't like and that weren't viable.

In 2007 a compromise was reached to build adjacent to the new public park that would occupy the museum's former spot. A more modest ($32.5-million) but still aesthetically interesting Stanley Saitowitz design was chosen. In early 2008 the aging museum was demolished, the permanent collection was stored, a reduced staff moved to much smaller temporary headquarters in the historic Centro Espanol building in West Tampa and construction commenced. On Nov. 7, a topping-out party on the construction site celebrated the completion of the steel shell.

Smith was there, as much a symbol of the museum's future as the skeletal frame.

His most obvious directive is to see that this building continues to rise even as world financial markets fall. That task was a primary reason he took the job; he wanted a brick-and-mortar museum project on his resume.

At 43, Smith, who is single, is still on the youngish end of art museum directors in large metropolitan markets. But this is his fourth directorship, and he has a track record of smart career moves and successes.

A serendipitous start

Smith grew up in Richmond, Va. He was 16 when his father, who worked in construction, died unexpectedly. His mother, a bookkeeper, supported him and his older brother, a gifted musician whom Smith emulated by taking up the trumpet.

"I was not very good," he says.

His first real exposure to visual art was as a freshman at Duke University, when he took an art history survey course to fulfill a requirement. "Something just clicked, though I viewed the course more like a history class."

Then he took an American art history class, "because it fit my schedule. I had an amazing professor and became fascinated by American 18th and 19th century art."

He graduated in 1988 with a double major in art history and political science and pursued a master's degree in art history at Indiana University, which he completed in 1993. From there he began the familiar route of arts professionals, starting with curatorial jobs of increasing responsibility.

Smith was a curator at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., when, for economic reasons, his job was eliminated in 2000.

"I was happy as a curator," he says, "but I thought it was a good moment to reflect on my future and I really liked the idea of something more challenging. I thought maybe I could run a museum. I was 34 and inexperienced but figured that a small museum might be willing to take a chance on me."

A different direction

Smith's first job as a director began that same year at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, N.D., a small regional museum with a permanent collection of contemporary and American Indian art.

"I got there and had 125 employees but realized that 100 of them were part of the gaming operation. North Dakota allows museums to operate them for revenue. So I spent part of my time overseeing the off-site bingo and blackjack side of the museum. But fortunately I spent more time curating shows and building programs that would involve the community, especially younger audiences,'' he says.

"That's when I got a sense of the role a museum really can have in a community."

He went through the museum's five-year plan in half that time, diversifying the revenue base to prepare for gaming funds shrinking along with the state's population.

Fargo was a long way from Charlotte, where his mother, now retired, and brother, a high school band director, live, so when a post closer to them opened up, he applied for it.

From 2002 to 2006, he was director of the Knoxville Museum of Art, a young museum with a small permanent collection.

"In the short time he was here he accomplished a tremendous amount,'' says Steve Bailey, chairman of the museum board at the time. "He cleaned it up administratively, got our financial situation in good shape, streamlined everything. He had exhibitions that brought us attention. We started being noticed by national publications. He was especially good at catching artists just emerging and giving them their first big exhibition."

Making choices

The move to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C., in 2006 was another strategic one. Though its budget was about the same, less than $2-million, it was an older museum with a larger, more comprehensive collection. But it needed a stronger community identity.

"We found out that 70 percent of our visitors were tourists," Smith said, "and started asking them why they came. Ninety percent said for the permanent collection. We had been doing 12 special exhibitions a year, which was a lot of work for the staff and expensive. We cut that back to four a year. It was a simple idea that changed how we installed the collection." It also raised the institution's profile.

Then, to the surprise of the Charleston community and many museum insiders, Smith resigned in March after less than two years on the job. Rumors were that he had been fired or forced out because he was taking the conservative museum into progressive territory.

He said at the time, and board members confirmed, that his heart wasn't in the job.

"Todd was at a transition in his life," Thomas White, president of the board at the time, was quoted as saying. "At this point he wants to get his dissertation done to establish his future credentials. He's 42. Now is the time in his life to get that done." (Smith is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University.)

"The Gibbes had one of the best collections of art I had ever worked with," Smith says. "But I had been told they wanted to build a building and that's why I took the job. I had been very successful at turning Knoxville around and I didn't want another project like that. I realized the board probably wasn't going to go forward with an expansion and without that opportunity, the job was not going to sustain my interest."

He decide to take time off and work on his dissertation on Washington Allston, a 19th century American artist.

Strategies for success

A headhunter came calling after a few months, suggesting he apply for the job in Tampa.

Past turmoil at the Tampa Museum didn't daunt him.

"Every organization has moments when it tends to be a little rough," Smith says. "I see that as growth and change. I knew the (new building) project would be going forward. And honestly, the big thing was my love of the design of the building."

"He had done a lot of research on us when he came to interview," says Ray Ifert, president of the Tampa Museum board and a member of the search committee. "He had a lot of good ideas about reaching out to the community and being relevant. He's highly energetic and used to raising money."

So Todd Smith will have his brick-and-mortar project though the heaviest lifting has already been done. Still, there are many enhancements that will need funding and decisions to make about gallery arrangements before the museum opens about a year from now.

He has another building project that plays to his established strengths: Defining a unique identity that inspires pride and loyalty in a region that has, along with several regional museums, three major ones: the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg with its trove of works by the surrealist artist, the Ringling Museum in Sarasota with one of the finest collections of baroque art in the United States, and the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, a comprehensive museum with art spanning 5,000 years of human history. The three also mount compelling special exhibitions throughout the year.

The Tampa Museum of Art has a very good antiquities collection and modest holdings in 20th century and contemporary art. It has had interesting special exhibitions but even the best have never attracted heavy attendance.

"I think there are ways to define our success by more than just how many people come," Smith says. "Is it better that there are 100,000 unique visitors or 25,000 coming four times a year?"

He is idealistic and pragmatic, aware that he must balance curatorial responsibility — finding and exhibiting the best art possible — with practical realities — increasing attendance, membership and revenue with popular shows.

"It's much bigger than branding," he says. "It's what this museum can be for the community. Before I spend a lot of money on programs and exhibitions, I need to be more comfortable about our target market."

He prefers psychographics to demographics, based more on people's values and interests than numeric data.

"Museumgoers are, above all, curious types. It's incumbent on us to figure out who is curious and how they're curious."

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

New director Todd Smith ready to take Tampa Museum of Art to next level 11/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 3:31am]
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