New Museum, Old Leadership: Bad Pairing

The Tampa Tribune’s lead editorial two Sundays ago – the one calling for the head of Tampa Museum of Art Director Emily Kass – had to have raised a lot of community eyebrows as well as some museum-staff hackles.

It criticized Kass for failing to “build a communitywide constituency” for the still unstarted new museum, coming up short on “dynamic shows” and neglecting due diligence regarding critical paperwork.

For a number of insiders, however, it simply gave public voice to what has only been whispered privately. While it’s been abundantly evident that for too long Tampa has been saddled with an undersized, nondescript facility unworthy of a major metropolitan market, what largely went unstated was that the museum leadership wasn’t – and won’t – be ready for prime time.

A new museum with a formidable antiquities collection does not, ipso facto, put Tampa into the cultural big leagues. Bigger isn’t better by enough without first-class leadership and ambitious vision.

The timing of the editorial cattle prod was hardly happenstance. Crunch time is now.

Poor judgments that have had adverse capital-campaign implications don’t reflect well on Kass. And the window for finalizing guarantees from lenders and donors is about to slam shut. City Council, which grows increasingly skeptical, has been scheduled to meet this week (Feb. 10) on the museum financing package. It may not. Three days later the contract guaranteeing the construction price ($52 million) – barring further extensions – is set to expire.

This is all about closing the pragmatically best deal for the community and for the city that is counting on a premier facility – and a world-class museum experience — to help revitalize downtown.

The museum’s next-day response to the editorial was to initiate a last-minute letter-writing and e-mail campaign to the Trib and City Council.

What Kass should now be doing, however, is reading the writing on the wall, even if reversion to “square one” status results – which means a scaled down design and “adios” to Rafael Vinoly’s mother of all carports.

This community – and it’s hardly limited to the “elites” – and this city deserve a first-class art museum. Finally. And the implications are far reaching – from Monet-like renown and more children’s tours to downtown redevelopment scenarios.

Tampa wants to move to the next level. Mayor Pam Iorio wants a “city of the arts.” Nothing can be left to chance. Starting with leadership that never got the art of the deal.

A new museum — whatever the cost and configuration – coupled with the old leadership is a cultural white elephant in the making. That can’t happen.

Kass should take one for the team.

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