The Tampa Museum of Art opens Saturday after 10 years of controversy and setbacks. That saga is ended; let's close the book.
Time to begin a new story, one better suited to a museum: the story of its life.
A museum's most obvious job is to showcase art. Director Todd Smith has assembled an impressive lineup of exhibitions for the inaugural season. The centerpiece, taking up 50 percent of gallery space, is a large show of prints, paintings and sculpture by Henri Matisse. The museum's fine permanent collection of antiquities has been reinstalled and photographs from Garry Winogrand's "Women are Beautiful" series, also from the permanent collection, will be displayed for the first time as a group. Other galleries are devoted to mid-20th century abstract paintings from the Bank of America collection and contemporary art on loan from the famous Margulies Collection in Miami as well as a video art installation.
But the building itself will provide the public with its first impression of the Tampa Museum of Art and its most enduring encounter with the institution. Much rides on public opinion of it. The museum is designed by Stanley Saitowitz, a San Francisco architect known for using clean lines and practical materials in his buildings, a modernist inheritor of Le Corbusier, who has often said that architecture is not art.
"Architecture is spatial and experiential and it involves more than just the visual. Art is about what you see. Architecture is not just about what you see; it's about what you feel and that has to do with tactility and the spatial," he said in a 2007 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, shortly after he unveiled his plans for the museum.
Saitowitz's realized design seems inevitable and right. He had a downtown riverfront parcel with the unfortunate distinction of also being jammed next to the William F. Poe Parking Garage off Ashley Drive, behind the Children's Museum still under construction. He angled the building so that it turns its broad shoulder away from the garage's stack of concrete. The southern and western alignments, the site's best ones, take in the Arcadian greensward of the new Curtis Hixon Park, the city's nearby commercial towers and the University of Tampa's minaretted profile just across the Hillsborough River.
Parking garage? What parking garage?
From a distance, the museum's scale is modest; it's almost nestled into its corner of the park. The drama comes from the sleek rectangular box that glows matte and seems to hover over a fragile-looking, translucent base recessed beneath it.
Saitowitz achieved the illusion with massive cantilevers that thrust the second and third stories over the museum's first-floor outdoor promenades. It's a glamorous solution for a practical problem, providing shade that will turn those paved areas into terraces, adding more usable square feet to the building's footprint. Closer in, the cantilevering gives the museum a distinguished mass without making it a flat-facade monolith.
As it is approached, the moire appearance of the aluminum sheathing resolves into a screen of pierced circles — about 900,000 of them — that play off the building's angles.
Saitowitz breaks the long mass in half with a narrow sluice of space carved into the building. That detail, as with many, has a practical application. Inside, it forms a physical separation between the second floor's public galleries and back-of-house storage and support areas.
Saitowitz then takes the eastern half of the now visually bisected building and carves it into thirds by inserting a cutaway "box" into the facade. From afar, both elements relieve the monotony of such a long stretch of building. They're like windows made grand and eccentric.
We're used to museums' front doors as large gestures. This museum's entrances, from the north and south sides, are almost laughably unassuming.
What seems initially to be a misguided choice of form over function — so as not to interrupt the overall serenity of the facade, perhaps — makes sense in its geographical context. Saitowitz has a lot to include in a tight space and he doesn't waste any of it on imposing doors or cascading steps. He doesn't have to: The park provides the big buildup and leads you to the museum's south entrance either from the grassy steps that sweep along its length or along a tree-lined walkway. If you're coming from the Poe Garage, you can't miss the north doors.
The inauspicious gateway opens onto the requisite soaring atrium lobby, all white and aluminum with a core area reaching to the roof, lit by circular skylights referencing the aluminum paneling. In the lobby's center, a switchback staircase with clear panels is the museum's true grand entrance, beckoning visitors to the museum's heart, its galleries on the second floor.
They're clustered around the atrium, connected to each other by "bridges" and walkways. Light is also admitted through the pierced aluminium wrapping around the atrium's walls. Those perforations provide little glimpses into the galleries. All have double-height ceilings covered with fabric panels diffusing the fluorescent lights for a more natural, ambient glow. The flowing floor plan and double-height ceilings make the spaces seem larger than they are.
Saitowitz has embodied in this building his most cherished principles of architecture. The materials are straightforward, the flourishes discreet. But in the sleek monochromatic environment, he tucks in a fun little surprise: When the two elevators' doors open, visitors will be jolted with interiors painted Popsicle orange or lime green. And at night, when the museum is closed, it will still engage viewers. That metal overcoat was intended to be seen, even in the dark, and is being fitted with a light installation by artist Leo Villareal.
The brief comment of color and bigger exclamation of light are part of a museum's broad imperative: to accommodate crowds and art, an accommodation that should always embrace both purpose and pleasure. The building delivers both.
Almost a decade ago, another Tampa mayor in another time with another architectural plan said he wanted a "Wow" museum for the city.
As we all know, everything can change.
And everything did.
Everything except the "Wow."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293