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Covivant's muse packs up for New York City

Published Aug. 11, 2006|Updated Aug. 11, 2006

At Covivant Gallery, Carrie Mackin showcased art that made people think, that responded to social issues, that sparked protests outside its doors.

For seven years, Mackin pushed the boundaries of Tampa's art scene. Ultimately she realized that her vision was still years from reality.

So at the end of the month, she's moving to New York City.

In an arts community that has struggled to define itself, Mackin had become a defining presence.

Is her departure another indication that Tampa doesn't support its artists? Or is it just natural for an artist to try her luck on one of the world's biggest stages? Opinions vary.

"She's someone who is excessively creative and really opened Tampa up to the visual arts, and I'm sorry to see her go," said Erika Greenberg-Schneider, who owns the Bleu Acier gallery in Tampa Heights.

"But I also understand her frustration. People here are not interested in culture. They don't have that knack for wanting a certain vision of life."

But Paul Wilborn, the city's "arts czar," said Mackin's departure should not necessarily be interpreted as a failure here.

"Carrie and I are very close, and I'm very sorry to see her go. She's been a real asset to the arts community," Wilborn said. "But to me, this doesn't say so much about Tampa. I think the decision's more personal. If you're in the art world, it's not a crime or a betrayal to say, 'Let's go to New York and see what we can do.' ''

Wilborn, who grew up in Tampa, left for Los Angeles and later returned, noted that the arts movement here dates back only a few decades. The city continues to grow and stretch creatively, he said.

"I try not to panic about something like this," said Wilborn, whose official title is Tampa's creative industries manager. "To me, what the story says is, we generated Carrie. She was here for seven years, she went to school here, and she's still going to be involved here. I don't think we're losing her entirely."

Indeed, though Mackin's headed for the Big Apple, she hasn't given up on the Big Guava. She hopes to keep the gallery open and return here.

"I'm hopeful for Tampa," she said. "Perhaps me leaving will give me time to get expertise with New York and the market there, and when I come back, I can offer that to Tampa."

Covivant's fate remains in the air. If Mackin can sell her Seminole Heights bungalow before the gallery's lease expires in October, she would be able to buy the building that houses Covivant and keep it open. She has not determined yet who would run it in her absence.

For now, she is focusing on her last party, from 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday. All the art she can't take with her will be on display and for sale at the gallery, 4906 N Florida Ave.

Once again, the art is for sale. Mackin said her biggest challenge was building a collectors' base, a continual concern of many local artists and gallery owners. She was getting there, and her revenue went up every year, but "seven years is a long time."

Without selling art, gallery directors have a hard time covering the costs of the exhibits. They invest thousands of dollars into every show and rarely make a profit.

Schneider said her gallery was open for almost 2½ years before she sold anything.

"The educated public in the bay area is always screaming about how nothing is going on here,'' Schneider said. "Well, they need to take out their checkbooks."

Mackin, 36, said the city needs a combination of more young, creative people and more downtown development before it can have a thriving buying scene.

That's exactly what's happening, Wilborn noted, as condominiums rise in the urban core. But these things take time.

In the meantime, most gallery directors work other jobs to make ends meet.

"My gallery is my absolute passion, but unfortunately it doesn't make enough money for me to even consider it a job," Schneider said. She teaches design at the University of South Florida and runs a fine arts print shop.

Mackin said she always ran her gallery in her spare time. Her latest gig is an art commission for the exterior west wall of SkyPoint, a residential high-rise under construction downtown. In New York, she plans to work at a gallery full time.

"I bet there's not a gallery in Tampa where the owner pays himself a salary," said Brad Cooper, whose gallery is on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.

The Brad Cooper Gallery has remained open for 21 years, he said, largely thanks to its location in a historic, artistic area. Still, it's not easy for artists to get exhibit patrons to purchase pieces. "It's like the art scene in Tampa has kind of been turned into a wine-tasting charity party," Cooper said. "So I guess finding that handful of genuine individuals to come to art shows is difficult."

Wilborn said the city continues to work with artists and businesses to make people aware of the arts community. Ultimately, though, people will buy when they decide it's right for them, he said.

"You can't twist people's arms. It's not like you can say, 'Go out and buy this because it's good for the community.' They have to figure it out for themselves," he said. "But you can market it and try to get the word out on it. There's a real strong, young art movement here, and it's continuing to grow."

Rick Gershman can be reached at rgershman@sptimes.com or 226-3431. His Tampa arts and entertainment blog, the Ill Literate, is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/tampaarts.