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It's best to begin in Tampa, celebrating its new home.
Published Sep. 10, 2009

Point of view. It preoccupies Todd Smith, director of the Tampa Museum of Art, charged with opening and sustaining the new 66,000-square-foot facility under construction on the city's downtown riverfront.

For Smith, who joined the project a year ago, point of view is a literal and aesthetic organizing principle. Because once the doors open on Feb. 5, the focus shifts from its shimmering exterior metal sheath to the interior, and for Smith, what visitors see is integrally linked to how they see it.

"There is no closed-off space," he says of the exhibition areas, all on the second floor. "You can stand in certain places and see all the galleries. Anything that doesn't resonate with strength and quality will stand out. In a bad way."

The exhibition schedule he has planned for the next two years has one main goal: "to get a stronger sense of who we are as an institution."

The strategy is threefold. There will be an emphasis on what he considers the two strongest components of the museum's permanent collection, antiquities and works on paper, especially contemporary photography; special exhibitions will increasingly highlight 20th and 21st century art with complementary exhibitions that provide historical and artistic context; and the museum will organize more of its own rotating exhibitions.

So although "A Celebration of Matisse" is the glamorous star powering the museum's inauguration, it is not a random headliner. American abstraction, which was gaining traction at the time Matisse died in 1954, will be represented next door, with works from important mid-century artists. Across the atrium, contemporary photography represents the rise of new media at the end of the last century and the acceptance of mechanical processes and conceptual art, which will lead into a gallery dedicated to it, with installations from the famous Martin Z. Margulies collection.

It won't be a complete or even complex historical survey. The Tampa Museum lacks a deep permanent collection from which to draw. Nor does it have the funding (and clout) at this point to borrow a lot. But this is a smart and exciting start.

Smith has two more big, borrowed shows lined up in 2010 for the 5,000-square-foot special exhibitions gallery after Matisse departs. From May through September, "Jesper Just: Romantic Delusions" should make a lot of new fans for video art. Just, a young Dane, has a well-deserved international reputation. "Romantic Delusions" was well received and reviewed when it debuted in 2008 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It consists of four short videos, lushly filmed and cinematic with compressed story lines that are both spiritual and subtly erotic. Many people at the Brooklyn were disappointed there weren't more examples of Just's work.

Smith likes the show both for its inherent merit and for the way a video installation "changes how we interact with the space." It's also pragmatic. Florida museums have a hard time borrowing vulnerable art such as paintings during the summer hurricane months.

Then a switchback to the early 20th century with "American Impressionists in the Garden," a lovely exhibition of paintings from the Cheekwood Museum in Nashville that will run from October through December 2010. It predates the Matisse period and, Smith says, "It will let visitors understand what happened at the end of the 19th century that moved us into modernism and sets the stage for conversations we still have about art."

In 2011, the four special exhibitions will be curated by the Tampa Museum and Smith hopes that some will travel to other museums, which would enhance the museum's reputation. Three will feature modern and contemporary art, from early 20th century paintings to video, along with the first major museum exploration of Sarasota Modern architecture, one of a very few indigenous art forms to emerge out of Florida, Smith says.

The challenge Smith has with this coherent plan is the museum's very fine antiquities collection that also must be front and center. There's no way it's going to integrate into this exhibition schedule so Smith is honoring it as a standalone permanent asset. The new space will be smaller than the space at the old museum so works will be rearranged every nine to 12 months. At the end of 2011, it will have top billing in the big gallery with "Poseidon in the Ancient World," supplementing the collection with loans from other museums. "Oddly," Smith says, "it's a new idea, never used for an antiquities show before."

The plan is remarkably ambitious but also remarkably realistic. It gives even the merely curious, who will come to the museum the first year no matter what's up, reason to come back for artistic reasons. Even though the price of admission is yet to be announced, it's going to give us our money's worth. It's a new point of view.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.

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Tampa Museum of Art 2010 exhibition schedule

A Celebration of Matisse, Feb. 5 through April 18

Jesper Just: Romantic Delusions, May through September

American Impressionists in the Garden, October through December

Selections from the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, through 2012

Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Bank of American Collection, February though August

Ongoing: rotating exhibitions from the antiquities and works on paper permanent collections