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 [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.