Tampa Museum of Art director Todd Smith leaves the museum on solid footing with a strong run of traveling exhibits and commendable efforts to attract more visitors. As Smith prepares to depart for a new directorship in California this summer, the museum's board needs to find a leader who will embrace his initiatives to bring world-class art to Tampa and engage the public, particularly those who might not see themselves as patrons of the arts. The next director should understand the museum's mission and the city's investment and create a vision that grows interest in the museum throughout the region.
Smith arrived at the museum in 2008 after an emotional battle over the institution's future. Three years earlier, the city and the museum's board locked horns over financing for a proposed new facility. The city paid $7 million for design work and pledged $27 million toward the project. But shortly after Mayor Pam Iorio took office in 2003, she postponed groundbreaking until museum leaders could prove that they had secured financing to fund the remainder of the $76 million project. They could not, and plans fell apart in a nasty fight that pit art patrons against city officials bent on protecting taxpayers.
In 2008, a scaled-down, more feasible plan emerged and the City Council approved a contract for the construction of a new museum along the downtown waterfront.
Smith deserves credit for being a stabilizing force after such a fractured period and steering the museum through the $32.5 million project. Designed by architect Stanley Saitowitz, the 66,000-square-foot building opened in 2010. It abuts the Glazer Children's Museum, the Hillsborough River and the renovated Curtis Hixon Park. Not content to rely on the museum's permanent collection of antiquities to attract visitors, Smith secured several traveling exhibits that brought in world-class works by boldface names like Matisse and Degas. He also appealed to the community by offering broader access to the public through "pay what you will" nights, an effort to attract visitors on evenings when traffic downtown and at the museum dwindled.
With its prime location, the museum has taken its rightful place as one of the city's centerpiece attractions, and Smith deserves much of the credit. He also secured an impressive, diverse collection of exhibits for the next two years, including works by Renoir and Chagall and a show of American art by Norman Rockwell in the spring. Now the board needs to find the right person to fill Smith's post in a timely manner. The job description should call upon applicants to build on Smith's good start and find ways to further engage the community, lift the museum's profile and make it a must-visit destination in the bay area.