I learned that you haven’t really seen something until you have written about it, and that such deep looking is a practice of empathy.
When I started writing for CL 10 years ago, it felt like a little golden age for contemporary art in Tampa Bay. Long before sideburns and James Beard nominations were fathomable on Florida Avenue, Carrie Mackin’s Covivant Gallery was a haven for emerging artists, local and international. The City of Tampa, improbably, had leased a space at historic Union Station to the artist collective Experimental Skeleton, which dubbed it Flight 19 and staged massive installations including a sand dune continually shaped by electric fans, conceived by the artist Bob Wysocki. Gala Corina was still cool, and the Santaella cigar factory housed the nascent art gallery (along with dozens of artists’ studios, as it does today), which would morph into Tempus Projects.
I was in heaven because I was in my mid-20s and CL was paying me to write about art, and I could use words like “cock” in my reviews — when referring to Larry Clark’s Tulsa photographs, naturally. Not, like, gratuitously. (Shit like that just won’t fly at a daily newspaper.)I was learning to look at and write about art, and I was doing it with the best of partners in dialogue. I had studied art in school, but art didn’t get real until I sat down and had to figure out how to have a decent interview with a Theo Wujcik (the beloved painter and former USF professor, who died in 2014) or an Erika Greenberg-Schneider (proprietor of Tampa’s Bleu Acier printmaking studio). I learned that you haven’t really seen something until you have written about it, and that such deep looking is a practice of empathy. A certain school of thought dictates that journalists should be objective, but I’m not sure objectivity is the best compass for critics. I found it impossible not to love quite a bit of the art and some of the people I wrote about, and I don’t regret it.
Not long after I started writing, Mackin had shut down Covivant and left for New York, and the city had taken back the train station building and leased it to commercial clients. I learned that the cultural tide ebbs and flows here, as anywhere. There would be heartbreaks and windfalls as people got in and out of the game.
Now it’s my turn to say goodbye. I’m leaving for Philadelphia at the end of August, but as I go I see Tampa Bay entering another golden age for the visual arts. Exhibition by exhibition, Katherine Pill is energizing St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts with contemporary programming to a degree that hasn’t been accomplished before. Her current project, the first solo museum exhibition in the U.S. of American video artist Shana Moulton, leads the field by getting behind an adventurous emerging talent. The Warehouse Arts District, still developing, is breathtaking in the scope of its ambition. Tempus Projects has launched a quarterly artist residency program that aims to include an exchange with a Cuban arts center. And one of the most influential philanthropic entities in town, the Vinik Family Foundation, just staged “The Beach” at the Amalie Arena, spawning thousands of Facebook selfies of kids and grownups cavorting in a minimalist plastic ball pit designed by Snarkitecture. (Was it great art? Meh, but it was brilliant public engagement.)
On the other hand, just when you’re feeling progress, the Tampa Museum of Art gives its galleries over to a showcase of kitsch illustrator Peter Max. Don’t worry, we’re better than this; it’s a blip. One thing I always appreciated about Tampa Bay was that while outsiders assumed the area was a cultural backwater, those of us who lived here knew it really wasn’t any shittier than anywhere else. For every Peter Max gaffe, there’s a mural in downtown St. Petersburg or a public art project in Tampa, a performance at The Venture Compound or an exhibition at the [email protected], a Bluebird Book Bus or a Nomad Art Bus, tipping the balance back toward awesome.
It seems to me like funding is still the toughest nut to crack. Tampa Bay hurts from not being the beneficiary of a major foundation like Knight, which fuels much of the edgy arts activity that has driven Miami’s resurgence. Things are getting better. Earlier this month, the Gobioff Foundation announced a new initiative to support creative placemaking in Tampa, potentially opening the door to arts-based projects looking to make positive social impact. The Vinik Family Foundation looks poised to continue getting involved. And grants directly to artists are getting back on track in Pinellas County, after several years of nonexistence, thanks to the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance and Creative Pinellas. Real people are behind these efforts, as well as the free beer and postcards at every neat art show you ever attend. Don’t forget to thank them.
As for me, I can’t wait to come back and see what’s next for the visual arts in Tampa Bay. I’ve already made my reservations.