The Whipple effect

Local artist Jeff Whipple scores an Ybor museum bearing his name.

click to enlarge MEET THE ARTIST: Jeff Whipple stands before one of his murals in his Centro Ybor museum. - Marina Williams
Marina Williams
MEET THE ARTIST: Jeff Whipple stands before one of his murals in his Centro Ybor museum.

Two weeks ago, Tampa artist Jeff Whipple opened his own museum. No mere exhibition — not even just a gallery — but an earnest attempt at a small-scale museum devoted to a lifetime of his artwork.

Inside the 5,000-square-foot space, labyrinthine walls bear row upon row of Whipple's paintings and drawings, spanning more than 40 years and telling the story of a prodigious talent for representational and symbolic art that emerged during his youth. Wall labels pepper the visitor with biographical tidbits, marking milestones from Whipple's 1957 birth in Missouri to the childhood loss of his father to alcoholism. There's even a gift shop of sorts, where catalogs and prints are available for purchase. (None of the paintings is for sale, but admission costs $5.)

The Jeff Whipple Art Museum could use some help from a cosmetic standpoint. It's housed in a former storefront at a retail complex — Centro Ybor — that's fallen on hard times. The lighting leaves a lot to be desired; and the artist built the walls with his own hands. But still, you've got to wonder: How the hell did Whipple land his own museum?

The good news for artists is that the museum exists thanks to the largesse of Centro Ybor's owner, the Chicago-based real estate firm M&J Wilkow — and they want to give other local artists the same opportunity (in the same space) every six months. The bad news? Whipple may be a hard act to follow.

David Harvey, the M&J Wilkow vice president who is strategizing the revitalization of Centro Ybor, hopes the museum will serve as a temporary solution for a space that isn't attracting a paying tenant right now. Since last year, Harvey has been looking for an artistic tenant to host events in the empty Seventh Avenue storefront, which most recently housed upscale home store Metropolitan Deluxe. For a while, faculty from the Ybor campus of Hillsborough Community College arranged student exhibitions, but that activity tapered off. Then one evening, after touting Centro Ybor's future on Media Talk — a weekly webcast by Tampa Digital Studios — Harvey met Whipple.

"I went to his house the next day. We liked what he showed," Harvey recalls. "I said I was willing to do this. He liked [the idea], and I learned that I accidentally stumbled upon a pretty well-known local artist."

Over the next two years, Harvey plans to continue converting some of Centro Ybor's existing Muvico theater space into offices, altering the complex's focus from retail and entertainment to mixed use and hoping to bolster a larger trend in Ybor away from nightclubs toward offices, residential and creative businesses. Harvey would eventually like to rent the museum space to a destination retailer or restaurant, but in order to support it, Centro's worker population would have to reach 350-400. And he'd love it if the retail space turned out to be a permanent art gallery. "That would be a very good thing for Ybor," he says.

In the meantime, the rent-free space will remain a revolving gallery or museum devoted to the work of a local artist, starting with Whipple.

"Hopefully the fact that we've done this with him will result in other artists coming to me and saying they would like to do a similar thing," Harvey says.

But the number of local artists with a body of work as expansive or a determination as strong as Whipple's may be small. His persistence in producing figurative, symbolic art under the influence of teachers who emphasized abstract expressionism and minimalism (neither of which Whipple ever caved into) constitutes a central theme through the first half of the museum; no doubt many a present-day art student can relate. His latest paintings constitute an exhibit of their own, The Enduring Spasm, housed in a front section of the museum that Whipple promises will always be free to visit, beginning with an opening reception Friday.

In the new paintings, Whipple's strikingly photorealistic figures grope with "the spasm," a Keith Haring-like three-pronged squiggle that symbolizes both the origins of life and its brevity. As for the museum, Whipple hopes it will be more than just a flash in the pan, even if he has to migrate to another space after six months.

"If I can keep it going, if the community supports it, we'll keep it going," he says.

This week in Sketchbook: Megan previews Equinox: Stitched Together 

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