Building up Hope

A local activist proposes repurposing the existing home of the Tampa Museum of Art

click to enlarge AROUND THE BLACK: Nick Cave's "Destination," comprised of wool, beaded and sequined garments. - Courtesy Of The Artist
Courtesy Of The Artist
AROUND THE BLACK: Nick Cave's "Destination," comprised of wool, beaded and sequined garments.

A few weeks ago at Art After Dark, the Tampa Museum of Art's monthly Friday night art party, the crowd was beginning to thin by 10 p.m. Steel drummers played to a few groups of people and scattered applause, and the Starbucks girls had run out of everything but decaf. But Neil Cosentino, a retired Air Force pilot, still had the attention of a couple of listeners.

He sketched on a sheet of paper as he talked. Around his neck hung a nametag with an acronym written in black marker: SOMOA. Save Our Museum Of Art.

OK — wait a minute.

Save our Museum of Art? Isn't the city of Tampa on track to get a new art museum and a landscaped expanse of green space, complete with open river view, to match? A Great Lawn, à la Central Park, to call our own? A place where the Florida Orchestra might tune their cellos before a night concert of Sibelius and the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts could offer collages alongside corndogs?

Cosentino hopes so. He likes the mayor's plans for the Riverwalk and a pair of museums — one filled with art, one brimming with activities for children — lined up against the Poe garage between Ashley Drive and the Hillsborough River. What he doesn't like is the idea that the current building — and the parking garage beneath — will be torn down to make way for a park. Why not keep the building — but still build a smaller park — and use it to house some other local arts group or groups, Cosentino asks. A third "hub" could only add to area's potential to become a thriving arts district, he reasons.

It's the latest idea from an urban activist and self-appointed think-tank head who has a history of proposing 11th-hour ideas to save city property. Some of Cosentino's notions have taken on the patina of brilliance in hindsight; others have earned him a reputation as a city hall gadfly. He led the initial charge to preserve the old Gandy Bridge, though others carried out the process of making it a haven for pedestrians, rollerbladers and cyclists. His plan to save the old Bucs stadium, known as the Big Sombrero, from destruction met with less success.

Now Cosentino has his eye on the Tampa Museum of Art, which he characterizes as a perfectly good building (though in need of repairs), and the garage beneath it, which he cites as a revenue source for the city. With his passion fixed on simply saving the building, he'd like to see members of the local arts community seize on the idea and make it their own. (Though if pressed, Cosentino will share a few suggestions for repurposing the facility, like building a late-night cabaret at garage level.)

Next week, he'll present his concept for the museum's preservation and re-use at a public meeting of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. Though the Arts Council has no authority in the matter, Cosentino hopes to raise awareness among attendees, who might include Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, who sits on the Arts Council. The public is welcome, though RSVPs are appreciated. (Call the council at 813-276-8250 for more information.)

Art Keeble, the council's director, appreciates in principle what Cosentino is trying to do. "In fact, I like [his idea] a lot," Keeble said, because the building's preservation could concentrate the presence of arts groups in the area. But in reality, Keeble quickly added, the current museum building has long been plagued by leaks and fears of potential damage from rising river levels during a hurricane. And the mayor's plans for the park and Riverwalk are well underway.

"The train has left the station," Keeble said.

Enough about the building — let's talk about the art. The museum's current crop of exhibits is quite a patchwork.

An unusual sculpture by San Francisco artist Andrew Junge fills most of the central gallery. The piece — believe it or not — is a life-sized replica of a Hummer H1 ... made almost entirely out of Styrofoam. (A few metal bars, wood, and nuts and bolts help stabilize the frame.) From windshield wipers to license plate, the faux road-monster was made from found polystyrene that Junge accumulated during an artists' residency at Norcal Waste Systems, aka the dump, in San Francisco.

Surrounding the Hummer, a portfolio of photographs by Steven S. Gregory, the 2006 Tampa Photo Laureate, are on view. The pictures illuminate (literally, with careful use of flash, daylight and digital enhancements) places in the city where past meets present — like the site of the rising SkyPoint condominium (now complete) or an old bait-and-tackle shop on a pier jutting out into the bay. The juxtaposition of Gregory's vivid, sometimes lurid, color palette in the photographs against the pristine white foam of Junge's truck creates a delightful contrast. Add the frisson of realizing that both projects sound a subtle protest — or at least raise questions — about development and the environment, and you've got a rich contemporary moment happening in the central gallery.

In the main gallery, spend some time with the work of 10 African-American artists whose work bridges craft and contemporary art. Exhibits like this one, called Color — based on a common thread of artists' race and, to varying degrees, medium — don't always provide a great experience of the work involved. Put any five artists who use beads together in a gallery and the visual impact of the beads lessens. Messages, in this case often related to African-American or African culture, become echoes of one another.

Even with this sense of repetition, though, the pieces stand out individually. Some are outright fabulous.

Nick Cave's circular sequined-and-beaded fabric pieces clamor for attention like John Travolta in a pink sequined dress (and fat suit, natch). Cave, a Chicago artist and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago who has never fronted a band called the Bad Seeds, is best known for his "soundsuits"— floor-length, hooded robes made in the same manner as the round pieces from found fragments of sequined garments. The suits suggest a kind of antidiscrimination couture, rendering the wearer invisible inside a cloak of fabulousness. The sequined circles seen here offer a glimpse of the same heady embrace of decoration.

On a subtler note, oversized collars of ceramic beads by Sharif Bey reference traditional African jewelry while bearing titles like "Bling Black" and "Black Ice." As always, Joyce J. Scott's intricate sculptures of beaded figures (a skeleton, a Buddha), paired with found items like tiny religious icons, explore spectacular visions on the small scale.

Unfortunately for folks who don't already know her work, brief wall labels aren't much help in interpreting its dense symbolic language. Fiber artists June Gaddy and Tina Brewer and sculptors Beverly Buchanan and Michele "Tejuola" Turner round out the show's spectacular highlights.

The key is to spend substantial time with each piece; that mitigates the sense of sameness in the show.

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