Art Museum Plan: A Work In Process

Barring any unforeseen complications with City Council, Tampa has itself a workable art museum plan. Finally. The parties were running out of drawing boards to go back to.

And barring any deathbed conversions, not everyone will ever agree that the new plan is just splendid. Which is pretty much what you’d expect when talking art and politics and money. Then add site-selection subplots, business-plan recriminations and personal pique.

Some recent background on the museum ex machina. Amid rumors that off-again-on-again negotiations with America’s Capital Partners, owners of Rivergate Tower and the “Pavilion” (AKA “the cubes”), were heading south again, Mayor Pam Iorio concluded the city and museum were likely out of viable alternatives if they couldn’t do the ACP deal. Its CEO, Allen de Olazarra, said Iorio “deserves all the credit for this.” As in taking the last-minute, deal-clinching initiative.

It means the city will spend $20 million (of Community Investment Tax money) on the project, including $5.7 million to purchase and $10 million to renovate “the cubes,” which will provide about 28,000 square feet. The city will also temporarily lease about 22,000 square feet in the cylindrical Tower. In addition, it will shore up the maintenance-challenged garage adjacent to “the cubes” and sell it to ACP. Kiley Gardens will ultimately be replanted and reconfigured and serve as part of the museum’s “backyard.” When the relocation is complete, the old (44,000-square-foot) museum will be razed.

Work on “the cubes” retrofit could commence this year. According to Mayor Iorio, the time line on the renovation, the garage and Kiley should be “about 24 months.”

Phase two is the construction of a truly “new” museum, on the projected order of about 65,000 square feet, which would be just north of “the cubes.” The two could literally be connected. Target time line for the Ashley Plaza project: within five years.

“The phase two building is totally (design and construction costs) up to the private sector,” emphasized Iorio, who ultimately wants the city out of the museum business.

And that will mean the museum launching a capital campaign and holding on to most of the would-be benefactors who had pledged more than $30 million toward construction of the Rafael Vinoly-designed structure whose plans imploded last year.

At a packed City Hall press briefing, which included city council members John Dingfelder, Linda Saul-Sena and Mary Alvarez, museum board president Cornelia Corbett waxed notably enthusiastic and exchanged rhetorical and literal hugs with the mayor.

“I feel confident we will re-engage 95 percent of those people,” she said. Corbett also noted that it was too soon to put a dollar figure on the new structure.

Added museum interim director Ken Rollins: “There’s a tremendous amount of resources out there waiting for us to come forward with this project.”

Mayor’s compromise

Much has been made of the mayor’s “compromise.”

She obviously preferred the old federal courthouse on N. Florida for a museum and more green space for choice riverfront real estate. She also had said she wouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars until the museum had accumulated a $10-million operating endowment. That mandate has been modified to a phased-in requirement. Upon moving into “the cubes”: $4 million needed. Upon moving into the new museum: $10 million needed. Current total: nearly $2 million. It’s eminently doable.

“This is a real partnership,” said Iorio. “We’re on the same page. With Vinoly and the courthouse, we weren’t on the same page.

“I want the museum to be a success,” the mayor underscored. “To be successful, they have to show momentum. To re-energize the donor base and the museum board. It was worth it to me to compromise. The museum can grow in stages.”

The word “compromise,” however, can be a double-edged sword also connoting sheer expedience and flagrant face-saving.

To museum board member Jan Platt, the plan is “mediocre,” “make-do” and a “blatant political compromise.” She cast the board’s lone nay vote on the plan. Former Mayor Sandy Freedman is disappointed that it won’t be “first rate.”

Among those not disheartened is city councilwoman Saul-Sena, the city’s aesthetics archangel.

“I think the ‘Pavilion’ is the most breathtaking contemporary architecture in Tampa,” she said. “It will be a spectacular place for gathering, for a café and for exhibitions of sculpture work that are not light sensitive. I dare say many people haven’t really walked inside. It’s extraordinarily different.

“I can tell you the people in the design community are all enthused,” added Saul-Sena. “And this will set a really high bar for the next piece that’s built.”

To fellow council member Dingfelder, compromise comes with the territory.

“Politics is all about compromise,” explained Dingfelder. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing. The upside here is if she can pull this off – the Riverwalk, the park, the museum — this could be something special.

“These are unusual and pretty buildings,” said Dingfelder. “And keep this in mind, this is phase one. The museum board has a blank space right next door.”

Re-use perspective

Iorio suspects that re-use, per se, is what truly troubles some.

“I think there exists for some a kind of bias about the re-use of an existing building,” she theorized. “Maybe it’s hard for some to see a building that they have grown accustomed to, in a different light. I heard a lot of that with the courthouse and now with ‘the cubes.’ Older cities often take existing uses and turn them into something new and different. We are still a young city and still have, in part, the mentality that progress means something brand new.

“I suspect that 10 years from now, many people new to this community will assume that ‘the cubes’ were built to house a museum originally.”

It’s more than likely that perspective will ultimately carry the museum day. Proximity to and temporary use of the (Rivergate) “Beer Can” tower will remain an image issue for some. To anyone who ever did business at “the (old NCNB) cubes,” which is actually revered in art circles, this is probably no site to bank on for museum credibility. It will always seem ad hoc or Plan B.

And given the phased scenario, it is necessarily premature to render any ultimate judgment until that final, “signature” piece is in place – and in context.

Until there’s an end product, it’s all high-profile process. And not unlike news editing, law passing and sausage making, it’s not real pretty until it’s finished.

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