The museum that opens today on the Hillsborough River is the happy ending to a tortuous 10-year process in which visions changed as leaders came and went, three different plans were made and scrapped, feelings were hurt, and millions were spent with little to show for it.
Visitors will comment on the museum's sleek beauty and on the rarely seen Matisse prints that form its inaugural exhibition. But arguably the most striking thing about the new Tampa Museum of Art is that it exists at all.
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By the late 1990s, experts had looked over the old riverfront building on Ashley Drive in Curtis Hixon Park and deemed it beyond salvage as a serious museum.
So enthusiasm ran high in June 2002 when then-Mayor Dick Greco and museum board chairman Jeff Tucker gave a packed room in the Tampa Convention Center the first look at a new museum building designed by architect Rafael Vinoly.
It was the era of the Bilbao Effect, which had turned an obscure industrial city in Spain into a major international arts destination by dint of a single museum. The Guggenheim Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry, was considered as much a draw as the art inside.
"The arts as an economic engine" became a civic mantra. Communities wanted cultural districts and "starchitects" attached to those projects.
Vinoly was one of the brightest star architects in the design firmament. His vision for a $45-million Tampa Museum of Art elicited passionate responses. Some loathed the giant latticed canopy he wanted to stretch along almost an entire city block to link the 120,000-square-foot building to its surroundings. Many people, though, were enthusiastic, even awed.
Greco, Tucker and other museum board members had already spent about two years lining up support for a new museum and for designation of $27 million in Community Investment Tax funds with hopes of starting construction in January 2003.
They had also begun soliciting private donations that would raise the remaining millions needed to complete the project.
Among the many potential donors Greco approached were the developer Dick Corbett and his wife, Cornelia. They pledged $1 million, which would eventually be increased to $5 million, and she joined the museum board that fall and became its chairman in 2003.
"I was just going to be head cheerleader," she says now. She would wind up in a wrenching struggle just to keep the project alive.
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That spring a new mayor, Pam Iorio, was elected.
The city's involvement and support were essential. Unlike most museums, which are private, this one was owned by the city. The mayor had the power to make most administrative decisions.
But past mayors had always taken a laissez-faire attitude toward its management and current museum leaders weren't concerned. Iorio had touted herself as arts-friendly during her campaign.
She had also run on a platform of fiscal responsibility. One month after taking office, she met with museum representatives, beginning a kind of thrust-and-parry relationship that would continue for almost three years and nearly doom a new museum.
Iorio admits today that her biggest misstep was in allowing the board to pursue a plan she felt was both unfeasible and counter to her growing desire to develop Curtis Hixon Park as open space without a big building that would block views of the river.
Instead, two years went by as the mayor asked for more studies. The cost of building materials rose and the project budget rocketed to $76 million. Still, the board came within a few million dollars of raising its almost $50 million share and believed groundbreaking was imminent. The mayor became increasingly circumspect in her public comments about the museum.
In March 2005 the tension between City Hall and the museum peaked with a dramatic race by the arts camp to meet a fundraising deadline that required private donors to guarantee payments on the bank loans. Traditionally the city had done this, but it was now balking. Guarantors were found, but the legal ramifications of the arrangement became so complicated, the guarantees so stringent, Corbett knew it was an impossible request and pulled the plug on the Vinoly plan.
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Iorio seems to have anticipated the outcome, indicating on the day the museum announced its decision that she had alternative plans she herself would guide.
"I had to look out for the taxpayer," she said. "That is my role . . . not to be so enthused about any one project or any one dream that I lose sight of the finances and the practicality."
"I think she felt she had to make amends," Corbett said. "But we felt as a board that she should have told us from the beginning she couldn't support the plan. There was a lot of grieving."
Less than a month later, Emily Kass, who had been the museum's director for nine years, resigned. Many believed she had been asked to leave because the mayor, her employer, found her ineffective. Kass, now director of the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, declined to comment for this story.
During the next year, Iorio would offer two alternative sites, the old federal courthouse and a vacant office building. Both projects, at closer look, would have been much too expensive, a miscalculation with an ironic justice to her detractors. Trustee Jeff Tucker thinks the attempts, though unsuccessful, served a purpose "in keeping the idea of a museum in the public's mind, in keeping the public conversation going."
In August 2006, Iorio offered the museum a site in Curtis Hixon Park. The differing recollections of Corbett and Iorio indicate the dysfunction that permeated the process.
Corbett said she was surprised; the mayor had been insistent to her that the museum could not go into the park.
"No," the mayor said. "We offered the museum the site and at first they said no. So we turned to other sites until they finally came to the point of view that the site was fine."
Almost a year later, in May 2007, the trustees adopted plans for a $32.5 million building on a narrow sliver at the north end of the park. They chose Stanley Saitowitz, not a "starchitect" but plenty distinguished. In April 2008, ground was broken. In less than two years, the building was completed.
Iorio called the effort "the low point" of her seven years as mayor. "Nobody seemed happy with me," she said.
"Looking back now, she was probably right about the size, given the times we're in now," Corbett said. "But I regret that the project became so demeaned."
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The museum is no longer a city department and trustees control its destiny; city subsidies have been reduced and a new director heads it. The building is named the Cornelia Corbett Center in recognition of the lead gift of $5 million from the Corbetts. Her term as board chair is over.
So the ending is happy, happier than such vast compromises and differences would have portended. The trustees have a park setting on the river with good architectural provenance. The mayor has a smaller, fiscally responsible building. It opens to the public today at 11 a.m.