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The New Tampa Museum of Art. An Interview with Todd D. Smith

Leo Villarreal new media installation on Tampa Museum of Art south façade. Sky (Tampa), 2010. Light emitting diodes, Mac Mini, circuitry, custom software and aluminum. © 2010 Leo Villareal. All rights reserved. Photo © Richard Barnes

The Tampa Museum of Art, established a little over three decades ago, was reinaugurated in February 2010 at the Cornelia Corbett Center, a new 66,000-square-foot building designed by Stanley Saitowitz. We spoke with its director, Todd D. Smith, about his contribution to the museum’s reopening, consolidation, the collection it houses, and its exhibition programs, which overthe past year have revolutionized the cultural life of the city.

By Raisa Clavijo

Raisa Clavijo - In 2008 you took over the responsibility for completing the construction of the new museum building, expanding its collection, and leading fundraising efforts. The Tampa Museum of Art is now a solid institution with an excellent exhibition schedule. Tell me about this process. What strategies did you follow?

Todd D. Smith - It all started with honest conversations with our Board, staff, and key stakeholders about what we wanted our new museum to say about us, and identifying those areas in which we could excel. At the same time, we had to acknowledge the reality of our resources. We established a very clear idea of what sort of exhibitions we were able to present effectively and which filled existing voids in the community. For this reason, we landed on a program that is primarily modern and contemporary. We start with the belief that modernism begins with Charles Baudelaire’s 1860s call for artists to capture modern life. Thus our story of modernism starts with impressionism and continues through the art of our time. With this in mind, we started hosting and organizing exhibitions that provide a cross-section of Western art of the last 150 years, some in single artist exhibitions, and some in themed group shows.

We also noticed a significant vacuum in our region for exhibitions that 1) place design and architecture at their core, and 2) energetically engage with new media.  With this in mind, we have arranged an exhibition program that provides a balance of traditional and emerging forms of expression.

Tampa Museum of Art Executive Director Todd D. Smith.

R.C.- Tell me about the museum’s collection. How was it established? How extensive is it? What works does it contain?

T.D.S.- The museum holds two main collections: contemporary photography and Greek and Roman antiquities. These areas reflect the collecting interests of the museum’s early supporters and staff.  At present, the museum’s entire collection is about 7,000 objects.

R.C.- Tell me about the museum’s acquisitions program. Is it focused on enriching a specific part of the collection?

T.D.S.- The museum has identified three areas for collection expansion.  Two of these play off of the existing strengths of the collection (contemporary photography and ancient Greek and Roman); the third is concerned with new media. As part of our embrace of the art of our time, we commissioned Leo Villareal to create a unique work of light sculpture (Sky, Tampa) for the façade of our building. We are also actively exhibiting video and time-based art as part of our overall exhibition program.

R.C.- Martin Z. Margulies has loaned part of his collection to the museum. How many works does this include? How long will you have them? Is there a specific curated exhibition program for this collection?

T.D.S.- We will be working with the Margulies Collection for a period of three years. Currently, the second show, “Realism,” is on view at the museum. The exhibitions are the result of collaboration between the museum and the collection to identify topics that are relevant to the museum’s overall exhibition program and to identify artists who have not enjoyed an exhibition history in the region.

Cindy Sherman (American, Untitled (#141), 1986. Dye Destruction print (Cibachrome). Tampa Museum of Art. Bequest of Edward W. Lowman by exchange.

R.C.- Since the museum reopened last year, it has been noted for the quality of its exhibitions. Many of them have been curated by museum staff, and others are part of touring exhibitions organized by other museums and foundations. Are you also open to receiving proposals from independent curators?

T.D.S.- The first year we focused on exhibitions curated by other institutions, including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Cheekwood Museum of Art. In our second year, we are relying almost exclusively on our staff to curate the sixteen offerings we are presenting this year. As we look to years three and beyond, we are striving to present a balanced program with emphasis on modern and contemporary art. We are also looking to put at least one show a year on the road to other museums in the U.S. and abroad.

R.C.- The museum’s educational and community programs are not only focused on school-age children and young people, but also include programs for adults of all ages and for the lesbian-gay community with the Pride and Passion event. Could you give us a general idea of what these programs consist of?

T.D.S.- Part of the heritage of the museum has been an engagement with a variety of audiences, and as we have settled into our new home, we have worked diligently to expand this type of collaboration. In addition to a battery of traditional museum education programs, the museum has begun to reach out to develop new high school programs based on design thinking, to pursue innovative involvement with the V.A. and active military presence here in the community, and to address lifestyle needs by even offering yoga and meditation classes at the museum. Our Pride and Passion event on May 21, the official kickoff to the region’s LBGT celebration, is on track to be the event’s most successful iteration to date.

Edgar Degas, The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen (Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans), wax model conceived ca. 1880-1881, bronze cast ca.1919-1932, bronze with net tutu and hair ribbon, 38 ½” x 14 ½” x 14 ¼”. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. State Operating Fund and The Art Lover’s Society. Photo credit: Katherine Wetzel. ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

R.C.- You recently curated “Water on the Mind” for PULSE Art Fair. What was the curatorial concept for this project? Which artists participated?

T.D.S.- I was asked by the leadership at PULSE to curate its video lounge for the December 2010 fair. I took as my inspiration a simple concept of water, really as a nod to the location of PULSE in Miami, and to allow me to reflect on water (in the midst of the Gulf Coast oil disaster). I purposefully chose artists (Janet Biggs, Johanna Billing, and Janaina Tschape) whose works were not associated with water as a political vehicle but rather as an integral actor in more involved and humanistic narratives.

R.C.- Nowadays the museum professional must split himself between managing and seeking operating resources, and the traditional work of curating exhibitions and designing cultural programs. In your experience, do you think that there is enough financial support for culture and museums on the part of government, foundations, and the private sector in Florida?

T.D.S.- As you might imagine, all museum directors will say that there is not enough money to support all of the great ideas that our staffs and Boards have for the development of audiences for the visual arts. The recession has compounded what was already a tight situation. I would say that I remain optimistic about certain areas of fund growth, in particular in the areas of individual support.  We have seen our membership rosters grow in all areas of the chart, from our individual members to our highest level donors.

R.C.- A few days ago, you inaugurated “Degas: Form, Movement and the Antique,” an exhibition that will remain open until June 2011 and that explores the relationship between the work of Degas and the art of ancient Greece. Tell me about the impact this exhibition has had on the public.

T.D.S.- We are happy to report that the responses from our visitors and the media have been overwhelmingly positive.  Many of our visitors have commented that they never would have expected such a show to be on view in Tampa. As we organized the exhibition, we wanted to utilize some of our own collections of Greek antiquities and 19th century photographs that provided a fuller understanding of how Degas melded the ancient with the modern.  Additionally, the exhibition demonstrates how Degas continually sought ways to incorporate his lifelong passion for antiquities with the experimental nature of his sculptural work. In the end, this type of exhibition which presents the early years of modernism in a new light is becoming a hallmark of the types of projects we want to organize and present in the region.

Raisa Clavijo is an art historian, curator and art critic based in Miami. She is founder and editor of ARTPULSE and ARTDISTRICTS.