Even before the doors to the new Tampa Museum of Art opened to the public on Saturday, board chairman Ray Ifert made this request to the hundreds waiting to enter: "Come back. Come back often."
Given the response of the people who strolled through its galleries and sampled food from its cafe, it's likely his request will be granted.
"I'm blown away," said Mike Ferlita, a frequent patron of the old Tampa Museum of Art, which he called "just a plain building."
"It in no way, shape or form compares to the statement that this structure provides," said Ferlita, one of about 2,000 people who streamed in during the museum's first day.
The new downtown building, with 900,000 holes cut into its metal exterior and a shaded terrace overlooking the Curtis Hixon waterfront park, is a remarkable feat of engineering as distinctive as the University of Tampa minarets, he said.
Nancy Lietz, who has lived in Tampa for two years but was a regular visitor of Washington, D.C., museums when she lived in Annapolis, Md., was similarly impressed.
She was particularly struck by the staircase that leads past an Alexander Calder mobile hanging in the lobby to the second-story galleries, which provide expansive views of the park and Hillsborough River.
"The location is perfect," she said.
Susan Aberman, and her husband, Stan, included a trip to the museum as part of their 45th wedding anniversary celebration in Tampa. The two spend their winters in Boca Raton, but live much of the year in New York City, where they often take advantage of that city's rich museum culture.
"This can very well compare," Susan Aberman said.
And what did she think of the extensive Henri Matisse exhibit that marks the opening of the museum?
"It's quite a collection," she said.
The exhibit — which occupies much of the museum's 14,000 square feet of gallery space — represents possibilities that might have been mere wishes in the old museum, which had less than 6,000 square feet of gallery space.
"If you have an exhibition that has 100 paintings in it and those paintings are a certain size, that requires a certain amount of square footage. If they don't have the square footage, they're not going to be able to have that exhibition," said Lisa Small, curator of exhibitions at the American Federation of Arts, which coordinated part of the Tampa museum's Matisse show.
The American Federation of Arts' exhibit of Roman art from the Louvre included 150 objects ranging from multiton sculptures to tiny pieces of jewelry. In some locations, the traveling show filled 12,000 square feet. Its exhibition of Color Field paintings required at least 7,000 square feet.
Margaret Miller, director of the Institute for Research in Art at the University of South Florida, said the museum will transform the way people experience art.
"The old space never had good dimensions," she said. "It really wasn't an atmosphere that was conducive to putting artworks on display to their best advantage. This is an exceptional work of architecture that we have."
She also noted that the new museum will provide an encyclopedic look at art, with a permanent collection that ranges from antiquities to a light sculpture on the building's exterior, the new museum's first art purchase.
Director Todd Smith said the Leo Villareal artwork, titled Sky (Tampa), symbolizes his intention to add new media to the museum's collection.
"We'll have to see how it evolves, but finally we really have an outstanding facility and I think a great leader to move us into the new building with new ideas and new thinking," Miller said.
David Hetrick and Marina Kilberg brought their children to Saturday's opening.
Sydne Kilberg, 15, who visited the old museum, deemed this one much better, and was particularly moved by the Matisse pieces.
Hetrick preferred the gallery holding contemporary sculpture.
Might the experience turn him into an art lover?
"I'm more the football type," he said. "But I do like art."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.