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  1. Visual Arts

Three-museum 'Skyway' exhibit unites Tampa Bay through art

Caitlin Albritton, Can I Get a Spot? (Incline Press), 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas.
Published Jun. 21, 2017

No matter where you live in our region, "Skyway," an art exhibition that opens this week, will be nearby.

Or at least a part of it will be.

In a rare collaboration, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota will share a single show spread over the three venues, during a single time frame, featuring only regional artists.

Museums in nearby areas often have shows that complement each other thematically. A single show, spread among multiple venues, is unusual, as is the subject of "Skyway." It features 150 works by 57 artists.

"It's a reflection of the amazing work being done in our area," said Christopher Jones, associate curator of photography and new media at the Ringling.

The three-institution collaboration was sparked by the success of "My Generation," a 2014 exhibition shared by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Tampa Museum of Art in which young Chinese artists were featured for the first time in American museums.

"This isn't the same kind of show," said Seth Pevnick, chief curator of the Tampa museum and its Richard Perry curator of Greek and Roman art. "It's a new direction in that it's a regional show."

Curators from the museums worked together culling close to 300 artists down to 100. The final cut was made by guest juror Diana Nawi, associate curator at the Perez Art Museum Miami, because "we didn't want to be influenced by any personal connections," Jones said. "We all knew some of the artists."

The works range from paintings to installations, the only commonality besides place of origin being that all were created no earlier than 2016. The artists include well-known favorites such as Bruce Marsh, whose eloquent landscapes are exhibited, and relative newcomers such as Nathan Beard and his intricate abstractions.

The title references the grand Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge spanning Tampa Bay but also, said Katherine Pill, curator of contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, "it connects the three institutions. We talk of the difficulty of crossing a bridge to connect with each other. It's important to have crossovers."

True, the exhibition name could have taken inspiration from the Howard Frankland Bridge connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg, but it doesn't have the same cachet.

The variety of media isn't the only incentive for visitors to see all three parts of "Skyway." Curators have tried to exhibit artists in their galleries who work, and are better known, in different counties. Thus, Neil Bender of Tampa has created an installation for the St. Petersburg museum and Kirk Ke Wang of St. Petersburg is at the Ringling. And because the museums have reciprocity agreements, any member of one has free admission to all.

Underpinning the celebration of local talent is a vexing contradiction: While most agree that the region is home to a vibrant and diverse arts community, many would add that it is a poor art market. Ask artists and the majority will tell you they have day jobs ranging from teaching to commercial design.

"That's really correct," said Marsh, who taught at the College of Art at University of South Florida from 1968 to 2003 and is now a retired professor emeritus. "I never made enough money to support my family selling my paintings. Getting a teaching job was like winning the lottery."

"Very true," said Beard. "(Painting) isn't my primary income. I'm an art installer."

"I agree," said Bender, an art professor at USF. "Take Seminole Heights. It gets a lot of buzz for being trendy, artsy. But Tracy Medulla (a gallery owner there) is the only one who has stuck it out. I don't think this is a market for my work and maybe a lot of people in this show."

Two longtime gallery owners, Cathy Clayton of Clayton Galleries in Tampa and Leslie Curran of ARTicles galleries in St. Petersburg, both said their high-end framing component in their galleries provided essential income.

"You have to do something," Clayton said, "either more commercial art (think gift shop), which I didn't want to do, or framing."

"I think it's hard to sell here," Curran said. "You have to work at it. I make my living at this. Framing is about 50 percent of my income."

Both said educating potential collectors is important, which is a goal the "Skyway" curators have.

"We wanted to bring in artists that our Tampa audience might not be familiar with," said Joanna Robotham, curator of modern and American art at the Tampa Museum of Art. Her previous post was at the Jewish Museum in New York.

"It's not just here," she said. "Unless you're with the bluest of the blue-chip galleries in New York, it's a struggle."

"Making a living as an artist is difficult regardless of one's location," said Beard. "Places like New York, Chicago, L.A. are attractive because of the beguiling number of opportunities available, but the populations of those cities also ensure that much more competition in the marketplace. The art communities here are active, vibrant and full of exceedingly talented individuals. That 'Skyway' gives us all a chance to commune and collaborate and in some cases meet for the first time is so important for the future of the area."

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