Tampa Museum: An End Or Means To An End?

This much seems evident amid the maelstrom still swirling around the art museum scenarios:

*The process has been frustrating, controversial, costly and so, well, un-Iorionic .

Granted, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio inherited the polarizing “Mother of All Carports.” And paying to build – and operate — an endowment-challenged new museum was never going to be a slam-dunk. But isn’t Iorio too well-liked and politically instinctive to have allowed the perception that she had disingenuously undermined the original Rafael Vinoly plan?

*But also say this for the mayor. She’s a pragmatist .

She understood that the museum-site selection was looking more and more like a zero-sum, win-lose stand-off. If she ultimately had her way on a retrofitted courthouse, it would have been a Pyrrhic victory. Too many Tampa Museum of Art officials and board members adamantly opposed the courthouse option, and fund-raising would have been compromised without solid internal support. And some key donors are still smarting from the Vinoly implosion.

The mayor listened for a groundswell of support for her courthouse option and she’s now put away the ear trumpet. What she has heard, instead, is the case for keeping the museum on the waterfront. She has, thus, conceded that the courthouse isn’t viable, although still holding out for more green space by the river. Configuring a new museum site — somewhere in downtown — to accommodate that priority now awaits Solomonic compromise.

*A lot of people care . Folks are talking about a subject – art and where and how it’s housed – that too easily slips below the radar of general public interest unless an “Exploding Chicken” reference is included. The arts glass may be half full; people care enough to have really partisan, even heated, opinions.

*Many of the more opinionated turned out last week — in standing-room-only numbers — at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center’s Jaeb Theatre for the city’s public forum on museum site selection. It was to prove catalytic. The mayor was literally center stage as she made her case for a retrofitted federal courthouse on Florida Avenue in downtown. She was received politely, if not enthusiastically.

Working without notes, she pitched what was, in effect, a three-part vision . You have the courthouse option, per se, and its function within historic preservation. More to the point, you also have the courthouse/museum’s role in helping create a more pedestrian-oriented, vibrant downtown. And then you have what the riverfront – sans a museum – would yield: a village green and unobstructed views of the University of Tampa’s minarets, the city’s most precious and prestigious work of art.

*The mayor is her own best advocate, but she wasn’t preaching to the choir – which included the polite nay-saying of Sandy Freedman, Jan Platt, Frank Morsani and museum board members — on this one. From the tone and tenor of most (of the 40) speakers’ comments to robust audience responses, it was a one-sided, anti-courthouse crowd . When East Tampa activist Betty Wiggins exhorted Iorio to “make a bold move – put it in the courthouse,” you could hear the sound of one hand clapping. It was the evening’s only such exhortation.

*While issues ranging from historic preservation costs and expansion scenarios to direct street access and appropriate legacy were noted and re-noted, there was a sense that Iorio and her audience of ardent skeptics were talking past each other . This was not a forum – or foundation — for consensus. Somebody would have to blink.

The philosophical breach was manifest among the Jaeb jabs. Put it this way: Iorio wanted a GOOD museum location and the BEST possible game plan for downtown revitalization. The discordant choir wanted the BEST possible place for a museum. Would that they were one in the same.

*Iorio’s charge is to be more pragmatist than purist here. All options – as presented on a “Limitations Matrix” hand-out — were flawed. In fact, the courthouse choices had more criteria “no’s” than “yes’s”. But Iorio’s perspective is inherently different from the anti-courthouse crowd’s. Among all the low -and high-profile partisans, only Iorio is currently and directly responsible for a city that – for all the changes in the works — is still stuck with a dysfunctional downtown. Nobody else loses sleep over that one the way Iorio does. Jaebberwocky comes easy when you’re not responsible for the big picture.

That’s why she doesn’t want just a museum. She wants synergy; she wants catalysts; she wants both condo residents and visitors in the core of downtown. She wants a “city of the arts” – not just a city with a new art museum and a cultural arts district largely limited to parts of the waterfront. From her point of view, a facility on the Hillsborough River wouldn’t go far enough. And a courthouse that is home to a charter school, among other things, hardly furthers a serious revitalization vision.

As Iorio put it: “We want to bring the cultural district farther into downtown. From the University of Tampa to downtown.”

*An interesting subplot is the re-emergence of former mayor Sandy Freedman, who threatens to quit running around her backhand and come out of retirement if commercial developers desecrate the waterfront . For Freedman – and many others — the association of “private sector” and “waterfront” is an aesthetic red flag. With all due respect, Freedman and others who care passionately about the waterfront appear to misread what Iorio wants there.

The plan has been to add a net 4.8 acres of green “gathering place” space along the waterfront. “Our Central Park,” the mayor hyperbolized. Commercial development would be limited to the fringes. It would include restaurants, cafes and possibly Hyde Park Village-like condo units above shops that would complement the Riverwalk and, along with the Children’s Museum, help “hide” the south side of the Poe Garage, a prime study in riverfront desecration. (Moreover, developers’ fees could underwrite the conversion of Zack Street into an “Avenue of the Arts.”)

In her Jaeb presentation, Iorio underscored that she’s hardly looking to sell off and sell out the waterfront. Several times she hyped her stewardship bona fides by mentioning that it was only her signature that stood between the waterfront and a 24-story condominium tower planned under the Dick Greco administration.

*Bottom line: Throughout this painstaking, circuitous process, the mayor has looked at the museum choice as a cultural-arts means to a downtown-revitalization end. It’s a vision . Others seemingly saw a new museum as its own ideal end. It’s a viewpoint . Both are valid.

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