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New Tampa Museum of Art's grand opening rewards board member's dedication

The new Tampa Museum of Art celebrates its grand opening on Saturday. The building on the Hillsborough River features a shimmering pierced aluminum exterior and translucent ceilings.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

The new Tampa Museum of Art celebrates its grand opening on Saturday. The building on the Hillsborough River features a shimmering pierced aluminum exterior and translucent ceilings.

DOWNTOWN — Barbara Barritt Romano downplays her part in getting Tampa a swanky new art museum. But ask her to name a longer-serving board member and she's stumped.

This weekend, the public will witness the results of her determination to see the 66,000-square-foot Tampa Museum of Art to completion.

"We had a lot of setbacks," she said, recalling endless discussions before trustees settled on a site, architect and funding.

"We would think we were heading down one path, and that didn't work and we had to go down another. But fortunately, we had wonderful leadership."

Romano, 71, wound down four decades as a trustee last month, some years alternating with her late husband, Jack. President Ray Ifert honored her persistence, surprising her with the Jeanne Rozier Winter award, named for a noted benefactor. She is only the third person to receive the distinction.

"My commitment is long," Romano said, "but the museum would not have happened without Ray, Corny (Cornelia Corbett), Hal Flowers and many others.

"I'm just someone who believes very strongly the city deserves the very best museum we can have,'' she continued. "And I tend to be very aggressive about what I believe needs to happen."

Romano's involvement dates back to her days as a single, working woman — secretary to the director of the old Tampa Art Institute, later renamed the Tampa Bay Art Center, that operated on the old state fairgrounds on N Boulevard.

The Tampa native chaired the art center's board when then-Mayor Bill Poe proposed a city art museum. In 1979, she steered the merger of the center and the Tampa Junior Museum of Hyde Park to become the Tampa Museum of Art, a $2 million building on the Hillsborough River.

"The location, architect, director, those were city decisions," recalled Romano, who became the first chairwoman of the new board. "There was not as much input at that time."

As Tampa grew, so did the museum, undergoing several expansions.

"It was added on to many times, but it was never big enough," said Romano, whose long list of responsibilities includes capital campaign and building committees, and first chairwoman of Pavilion, the elegant, once strictly white-tie ball that has raised more than $3 million for the museum.

Plans for a "bigger and better" facility were always on the table, she said.

In 2000 the trustees and then-Mayor Dick Greco signed off on a $52 million design by architect Rafael Vinoly. Before a shovel went into the ground, economic fears led the next mayor, Pam Iorio, to pull the plug for insufficient funding. The plan was killed in 2005.

"From the onset, Barbara was there,'' said Margo Eure, a board member for more than 22 years. "She's not a naysayer at all, but she read the contracts and asked the difficult questions."

An idea to retrofit a downtown federal courthouse into a museum was rejected before the current spot and architect Stanley Saitowitz were approved in May 2007.

"I was willing to look at other locations,'' Romano said, "but didn't see how we could find one better than the riverfront."

She couldn't be happier with the result.

"We have a lot of young leadership, a good new agreement with the city, a beautiful new building and a wonderful new director.

"It's a whole new day."

Amy Scherzer can be reached at ascherzer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3332.

If you go

The Tampa Museum of Art

Doors open Saturday showcasing the works of Henri Matisse. A grand opening ceremony takes place at 10:30 a.m. on the museum's south plaza.

Gayle Sierens of WFLA-Ch. 8 will host the event featuring Mayor Pam Iorio, museum executive director Todd Smith, architect Stanley Saitowitz and several board members.

Art activities — creating collages, making jewelry and exploring printmaking techniques, to name a few — will be offered from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for all ages in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.

The outdoor opening festivities are free, but museum admission is $10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors, active military and Florida educators, $5 for students and free for children under 6. Call (813) 259-1720.

Looking to keep the celebration going that evening? Sunset Cinema, Tampa Theatre's traveling outdoor movie, will show Night at the Museum starring Ben Stiller at 6:30 p.m. in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. Admission is free. You can buy snacks or bring your own food and drinks. Don't forget blankets, chairs, footballs, Frisbees. Dogs are also allowed. Call (813) 274-8286 for more information.

New Tampa Museum of Art's grand opening rewards board member's dedication 02/04/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 5:58pm]

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