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Museum's 25 years of somedays discredit art

The day after that wet, gray Christmas it was damp and gray, and getting out of the house was the top priority. So I did the kind of urban thing I would do on a day like this in another city. I went to the art museum.

The rain had stopped, but there were pools of water in the underground parking garage at the Tampa Museum of Art, and water still dripped through the ceiling.

"I wish the roof leaks weren't so visible," my husband muttered. He meant, considering it's the parking garage for the museum, it does make one question the stewardship of the art.

I don't know how long the parking garage roof has leaked, but my awareness of it goes back 10 or 12 years. I know it's hard to find a roofer, but this is ridiculous.

Three or four cars were parked there. So once you accounted for security guards and a salesclerk in the museum store, you knew there wouldn't be a crush of people inside. True, the current show, "TMA 25: The Collection," which closes Sunday, is work from the museum's permanent collection, and it has been up since October. You wouldn't expect the same crowd as on opening weekend of a big show.

But a museum isn't just about the art.

In some cities, a museum is seen as a place to go. It's the art, yes, but it's the people, it's the ambience, the restaurant, the coffee bar, the museum store _ it's the whole experience of being there.

Let's face it, from the leaky parking garage to the lackluster exterior to the interior of the restrooms, the experience of being at the Tampa Museum of Art is a dud.

This current show, "TMA 25," celebrates the museum's 25th anniversary. It has had 25 years to get it right. The last major renovation was completed 10 years ago. At that time, those of us who really want to love this museum prayed for a cafe, but no. That was something to think about for the future, said the museum director at that time.

What was there to think about _ then or now?

This is not something you have to hire an international architecture star to design; this is coffee. Okay, so there isn't space or money for the fabulous restaurants in the new MOMA, but I've been in museums less spacious than TMA that have small lively restaurants or coffee and dessert bars wedged in somewhere. It doesn't matter if the space is tight; that just means people are crowded together more, and there's more chance for buzz. The Terrace Gallery, the space along the back of the museum with a wall of windows facing the river, is practically empty now. As it is, TMA rents it for catered events, touting room for 100 tables! What a great place to put a restaurant.

Why was this not done 10 years ago? Or eight years ago when the new director was hired? Or five years ago, or yesterday?

That they're now waiting for the new museum building to be built is no excuse.

There are other things that could be done but have not been.

Why isn't large-scale outdoor art displayed in the huge barren courtyard? Why is the prominent adornment at the museum entrance _ a billboard-size sign for the new museum building _ so pedestrian it could be announcing a new project for the DOT? Why is the ladies room less stylistically hip than those in scores of Tampa restaurants?

In June, 1996, Emily Kass took over as the director of the TMA. In an interview with this newspaper she said, "The museum is a gem. It just doesn't have the level of visibility that it should have."

In March 1997, she was quoted as saying, "I think we still have visibility problems."

In November 1999, she said building a new museum closer to Ashley would increase its visibility.

In 1993, Curtis Hixon Hall, the ugly behemoth that blocked sight of the museum from Ashley, was demolished. In 1995, Albert Alphonso, the same architect picked to work with Raphael Vinoly on the new museum, finished the renovation on this one. A Times writer, a good one, gushed over the cream, butter-yellow and gray facade that bore the influence of LeCorbusier, announcing: "Tampa, which for years has had an art museum hidden from view, is about to get its own visual nexus and gathering place."

Happy New Year.

Sandra Thompson, a Tampa writer, can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.