Four years ago, when local artists' collective Experimental Skeleton partnered with the City of Tampa to create an alternative art space in an historic train station downtown, the group reached for a symbolic name. They dubbed the abandoned baggage claim building-turned-gallery "Flight 19," a reference to a cluster of five U.S. Navy bomber planes that became the first known aircraft to go missing in the Bermuda Triangle. Like the mysterious planes, so might the gallery disappear if the city were to find a commercial tenant willing to lease the space for more than the token dollar Experimental Skeleton paid each year. That was the deal.
Last December, Flight 19 sent out a distress call. A commercial tenant had approached the city, but for only the smaller of the building's two halves; in turn, the city agreed to run water and sewer lines to the building, making the space even more attractive to potential tenants. The members of Experimental Skeleton, led by Tampa artist Joe Griffith, rearranged Flight 19 in the larger half of the building, but they worried that the art space's days were limited.
But three months later, Flight 19 is still on course. Griffith has negotiated a new lease with the city — subject to the approval of City Council — that has Experimental Skeleton paying a bit more for use of the space, though the city retains the option to terminate the agreement on relatively short notice. In the face of a $16.8 million budget shortfall, the city finds itself between a rock and a hard place, wanting to help Flight 19 but needing to charge something for the use of city property, says Herb Fecker Jr., the city's real estate division manager.
"It's acknowledged that they are of value to our city, and we have accommodated them because of that in the past," Fecker says. "As you know, financial concerns have arisen in the city, and we have to address those as well.
"If we get a good tenant to come in, [the artists] have to move. In the interim, [they've] got a home," he says.
For now, business as usual continues at Flight 19. A new exhibit, Rediviva, is as delightfully inscrutable as almost everything Experimental Skeleton does. A poetic collection of objects created by ES members and guest collaborators, the exhibit takes as its inspiration the 2003 disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas. More than a dozen sculptures spread over Flight 19's floor simulate the puzzling bits of debris found after the shuttle's destruction. They run the gamut from elaborate sculptures made of electronic components, plastic, styrene, wood or resin (in some cases, careful reconstructions of actual shuttle debris) to abstract interpretations of the emotional baggage attached to technological failure and success.
Take Kym O'Donnell's film-and-resin sculpture. To create it, the artist first posed other ES members in a photo shoot designed to mimic the last known images of the doomed astronauts, then she submerged the roll of exposed film in a bag of electric blue resin. Now a rock-hard lump, the sculpture waits for some unwitting explorer to stumble upon its mystery. And each contribution to Rediviva — from artists including Robert Chambers & Mette Tommerup, Brian Taylor, Paul Pisoni, Jeremichael Bonds, the Fluff Constructivists, April Childers and Gregory Greene — is similarly worth the mental unpacking and a testament to why Flight 19 is a resource worth keeping.
Unlike private fine-art galleries, where an emphasis is placed on selling artworks, or museums, which largely house art that has already been vetted by the gallery system, Flight 19 supports the art of the proverbial last 10 minutes — art so adventurous that it may leave you scratching your head. The space came to life under the watch of Paul Wilborn, Tampa's former creative industries manager. (Last year, after the city eliminated his position due to budget cuts, Wilborn became executive director of the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.) The project's aim was to nurture Tampa's nascent arts community and draw attention to an under-utilized city building — a win-win for both the city and artists, Wilborn says.
"Joe's group really took it and ran with it, and I think it became more than just a deal to put some artists in a city space," Wilborn says. Now Flight 19 is "one of the best gallery experiences for new art in Tampa."
With the recent relocation of the Tampa Museum of Art to West Tampa (pending construction of its new riverfront building), the irony is that Flight 19 is one of only three visual art venues remaining in downtown Tampa; the diminutive Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and Orange Park Gallery International round out the trio. A pair of recent "guerilla" art events — a temporary mural-based public art project called artLOUD and a one-night gallery show in a unoccupied storefront called Nobarrenspace ... A One Night Stand — have brought flickers of arts activity to North Franklin Street, but otherwise claims of developers and government officials that downtown Tampa is home to one or more arts districts ring hollow.
With the number of empty storefronts in both old and new buildings downtown, it ought to be easy for an arts group to find a temporary low-budget home, city-owned or otherwise. But longtime ES member Bob Dorsey says little has changed in 10 years; the same property owners that were sitting on empty buildings during the 1990s are still doing so today. "There could be some heroes in this town if they said, 'OK, here's the deal: It's $100 a month, and you have to have insurance,'" he says.
For now, Dorsey is determined to raise awareness of Flight 19 with a regular, once-a-month event (held on the 19th day at 1900 hours — that's 7 p.m.) called "Dead Reckoning." Bring your sketchbook, guitar, slides and other creative apparatuses to the train station's baggage claim building and meet other creative folks, he says — or just come see the exhibit.
"Now you know," says Dorsey, "there's always going to be something happening at Flight 19."