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  1. Visual Arts

Exhibit on Greek god Poseidon dives into new territory

There was a problem with the trident.

It was to be a star of "Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult and Daily Life," which opens Saturday at the Tampa Museum of Art. But the 200-pound, 14-foot-long bronze spear, thought to date from the 6th to the 3rd centuries B.C. and on loan from the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, was too long for the museum's cargo elevator.

Seth D. Pevnick was not to be denied the trident.

The Tampa Museum's chief curator as well as the Richard E. Perry curator of Greek and Roman art had worked on the exhibition since arriving at the museum in 2009 and that object was going to be in it even if a crane had to be hired to hoist it to the second-floor galleries.

Happily, a less expensive and potentially perilous solution presented itself and the trident is now in place among more than 100 objects on loan from 20 lenders, mostly prestigious U.S. museums, that join 25 from the museum's own stellar collection of antiquities.

"Poseidon" is a remarkable show, the first one ever in the U.S. to address with such depth and focus the Greek god's depiction and role in ancient life.

What makes it more remarkable, though, is it opens just a week after the opening of another groundbreaking show organized by the museum, "My Generation: Young Chinese Artists." And it is the third big, original show in a row, beginning with a retrospective of University of South Florida's revered print atelier, Graphicstudio, in February, each accompanied by a scholarly catalog, from an institution with just 13 full-time employees.

"It's a pretty breathtaking accomplishment by our staff," says Todd D. Smith, the museum's executive director who has led the museum's amazing rise to distinction. "We didn't set out to do that five years ago. It became a question of timing and scheduling."

Smith, 48, resigned in May to become executive director of the Orange County Museum of Art in California, a departure that is not unexpected given that he's still young by director standards and is looking for new challenges that will continue to build his resume. He came to the museum in 2008 when it was camped out in small temporary headquarters, its collection in storage, awaiting construction of a new facility. The museum's board had finally made peace with the city, which owned the museum, after a bruising, years-long struggle to build a new museum. His job was to oversee construction, smooth ruffled feathers, help raise money and plan an exhibition schedule.

"You don't know all the talent a person has until you test it," says Jeff Tucker, who is a vice-chairman of the museum's board and has been a museum supporter for decades. "He's a strong curator and a good CEO. He was careful never to overpromise and under-deliver. He gained donors' trust and corporations knew that if they made investments in the museum, they would be well-tended. These are successes that would draw the attention of other museums."

Since the museum reopened in 2010 on a downtown site overlooking the Hillsborough River, it has hosted 38 exhibitions of modern and contemporary art using mostly touring exhibitions to craft a canny mix. Shows featuring beloved artists such as Henri Matisse and Edgar Degas made money that could help fund ones by less familiar and less bankable artists such as those working in video.

This mission to feature the art of our time and that which prefigured it might have clashed with the museum's greatest asset: its Greek and Roman antiquities collection, considered the finest in the southeastern U.S. It could never be treated as an afterthought but it also had no obvious link to the temporary exhibitions. So the antiquities collection has its own large permanent gallery space in which objects rotate in and out in service to themes Pevnick wants to illustrate, making no apology for the lack of transition between it and the art that surrounds it.

"Poseidon" occupies about half of all the museum's gallery space, sharing it with "My Generation." That was a circumstance no one at the museum anticipated.

"We had originally planned Poseidon for 2011," says Pevnick, who was previously a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum's Getty Villa, which has a renowned antiquities collection. "It took me longer to secure loans and there were other big shows on our calendar. It gave us a little more time."

The idea for a show about Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, who also had command over horses and earthquakes, came during his time at the Getty, when he was looking into the potential job in Tampa.

"People like the gods and goddesses, but they especially like Dionysus, because he's the party god, Zeus, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, so lots of exhibitions have featured them. You don't see as much about Poseidon. And it just so happens that the biggest and best preserved statue of Poseidon in the United States is right here in Tampa. Tampa is a port city with Mediterranean ties. It made sense."

Loans were locked in place for the summer and early fall of 2014. Then came the rub.

Since 2011, Smith had pursued the possibility of a broad survey of young Chinese artists, which hadn't been done before in the U.S. He worked with Barbara Pollack, an expert on the subject who was hired to curate the show. It would be big, requiring most of the museum's gallery space. And the only time open for it in 2014 were the same months committed to "Poseidon."

"We couldn't change "Poseidon," Smith said, "because of the complicated loan agreements, and we didn't want to put off "My Generation" for fear that someone else would do it before we did."

He and Kent Lydecker, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg had been discussing the idea of a collaboration for some time, Smith says. "My Generation" would be an important show for both museums and solve the Tampa Museum's space and timing problem by sharing it.

Installation for the last of the museum's Big Three is almost complete. The trident, it turns out, had been broken at some point and repaired so that it could be dismantled into two pieces.

Pevnick, 37, becomes acting director in July.

Everything seems to be working out at the Tampa Museum of Art.

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