Looking good

Ten reasons to believe in the future of Tampa Bay's art scene

click to enlarge HIS NOSES KNOW: Neil Bender's "Pheromone Wave." - N. Bender/ Bleu Acier Inc.
N. Bender/ Bleu Acier Inc.
HIS NOSES KNOW: Neil Bender's "Pheromone Wave."

I don't need to tell you that the Bay area is no New York City, Atlanta or even Miami when it comes to visual art: The people who are active in our nascent scene are fighting tooth and nail to keep it alive. Thankfully, 2006 has been full of victories, both big and small, that bode well for 2007 and beyond. Here are the Top 10 reasons to be glad, as a contemporary art lover, that you live in the Bay area:

1. Local artists and art works

The ultimate reason to be excited about the Bay area's state of the arts ... Here are a few pieces or bodies of work that, months later, I still can't get out of my head ...

• Photography: Kym O'Donnell at Para Gallery. O'Donnell's hand-colored photographs, shot in historic Tampa Theatre with local folks as models, resemble dreamy, silent-film stills.

• Painting: Neil Bender at Bleu Acier. Full of phallic symbols, bubble-gum-pink cum and the occasional oversized ass, the USF prof's mixed-media works play in the space between sweet as candy and downright nasty.

• Sculpture: Nancy Cervenka at the Arts Center and Florida Craftsmen. Cervenka's coiled film sculptures have won her two Mainsail Best of Show awards, but they still seem newly marvelous each time I see them.

• Installation: Babs Reingold at [email protected] A looping soundtrack of people revealing their innermost secrets — at times hilarious, at times disturbing — accompanied a giant labyrinth of pendulous silk bags filled with hair.

• Performance/Sound: Dainty Art Collective at [email protected] Donning handmade costumes (I can only call them disco burqas), dancing and chanting while one member of their collective remixed the live sounds and video of fireworks played in the background, four Eckerd College students delivered the performance of the year.

2. Booty Art Expo

Get some on March 3-4, when the contemporary art fair makes its second annual appearance on the fringes of the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts. Last week, the city of Tampa interviewed curators to follow in the footsteps of Covivant's Carrie Mackin, last year's mix-master, who packed a cluster of PODS on Franklin Street with work from some of the most exciting artists and venues in the Bay area and beyond.

3. Gala Corina

One hundred and forty exhibiting artists, free beer, drag queens and 6,000 visitors packed like sardines into a warehouse with no air conditioning? It's gotta be Gala! This year, the law firm Sponsler, Bennett, Jacob & Cristal donated its Ybor warehouse for the weeklong art show, which drew its largest opening-night crowd ever. Whether you think Gala has improved with age since its 1999 debut or peaked long ago, you can't argue with that kind of turnout.

4. Flight 19 Steps It Up

In downtown Tampa, they're literally the only game in town. So thank goodness Flight 19 has quickened the pace of its schedule of interdisciplinary art events and film screenings, including a February show with Houston's The Art Guys, in collaboration with the Tampa Museum of Art. Housed in the baggage claim building of old Union Station, a space donated by the city, their budget is next to nil — a fact Joe Griffith, who leads the intrepid group, hopes to remedy that with a fundraising campaign in the near future.

5. Craft, Graphic Arts Thrive

Two movements traditionally snubbed by fine arts have all but stolen the show this year. The emergence of a hip, young crafting scene through Tampa's Crafting Out Loud and Sarasota's Atomic Holiday Bazaar, along with the continued success of traditional venues like Florida Craftsmen Gallery and Craftsman House, signals a strong and diverse craft community. In the graphic arts, St. Pete's Blackout Creations and Ybor's Redletter1 divide their spaces between visual art and tattoo; Neo Trash showcases locally made screen-printed apparel and accessories; and the Dirty But Sophisticated cocktail of art, music and fashion keeps on rocking.

6. [email protected] Turns 2

A downtown St. Pete arts scene without the [email protected] would be like milk without cookies: pretty bland, in my book. Join them on New Year's Eve for a double celebration — it's also the nonprofit arts space's second birthday. The First Night hoopla will include fortune-telling and an interactive puppetry theater led by the Oiseaux Sisters. Co-director Bob Devin Jones may even be enlisted to bake some of his famed chocolate chip delicacies. Sun., Dec. 31, 7-11 p.m., 620 First Ave. S., St. Petersburg, 727-895-6620, www.studioat620.com.

7. [5]art Takes a Stand

This group of artist-curators emerged in the wake of Covivant's departure to help revive Michael Murphy's Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor. In 2007, expect a lineup of great shows selected by the five members: HCC Ybor art professors Tracy Midulla and Diran Lyons; emerging artists Tyler Jopek and John Russell; and former Gulf Coast Museum of Art registrar Kurt Piazza, who deserves credit for bringing the Bay area's best exhibit of 2006: Will Boys Be Boys?

8. Art After Dark

Contemporary dance, fashion shows, anime film screenings and live art demonstrations were just a few of the offerings on tap at the Tampa Museum of Art's monthly Friday night art parties. Sure, the medley of catered-food smells wafting from the sculpture gallery inevitably evokes high school cafeteria circa 1987, but the hundreds of young professionals who flock to the events don't seem to mind. With complimentary chow and a potent dose of art for $10 (free for museum members) what's not to love?

9. Miami Basel

Miami has definitively one-upped New York by becoming the site of the hottest art fair in North America: Art Basel Miami Beach, a world-class event and a mere 4-1/2 hour drive away. Local folks flocked to the Big Orange for the four-day affair in December, and four Bay area groups — Bleu Acier, Flight 19, Graphicstudio and the Tampa Museum of Art — exhibited in sideshow fairs and events. As a spectacle of million-dollar artworks, designer handbags and Botoxed faces, it's not to be missed.

10. New Architecture for Art

The past year saw announcements on both sides of the Bay for plans to build eye-catching edifices designed to transform downtown landscapes and up the ante in arts offerings. St. Pete's Arts Center committed to a new 133,000-square-foot facility with a world-class glass-blowing studio and Dale Chihuly museum. The Tampa Museum of Art settled on an architect — San Francisco-based Stanley Saitowitz — to design its new home on the Hillsborough River.

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