Time to shine for the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

FMoPA stages a coming out party with a big Warhol show in its splashy new home.

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click to enlarge 15 MINUTES AND THEN SOME: Andy Warhol’s "Self-Portrait (Fright Wig)" is one of the iconic images in the FMOPA show. - © 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
© 2012 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
15 MINUTES AND THEN SOME: Andy Warhol’s "Self-Portrait (Fright Wig)" is one of the iconic images in the FMOPA show.

About a dozen years ago, two Tampa-based photography lovers made a pilgrimage to the California gallery devoted to renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Attorney Chuck Levin, who collects photographs, hemmed and hawed about whether to buy an expensive print. Cynthia Flowers, a business owner familiar with her companion’s hobby, joked that he should start a museum instead of splurging on works of art few other people would ever see on display in his home.

“I said to Chuck, you’re a smart person — do some research and open a museum,” Flowers says, recalling her offhand comment. “And that’s what he did.”

This weekend, the 11-year-old institution known today as the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts — the eventual outcome of Flowers’ quip and years of labor by Levin and other devoted volunteers — moves to a high-profile new home in downtown Tampa. In concrete terms, the change transports FMoPA from a hard-to-find former deli storefront (also downtown) into the second and third floors of the airy glass-and-limestone Cube at Rivergate Tower, a building currently undergoing a renaissance. In terms of the museum’s image, the move makes a powerful statement that FMoPA is here to stay as one of Tampa’s cultural cornerstones.

To celebrate, the museum has organized an inaugural exhibition of works by Andy Warhol, an artist who knew a little something about crafting a self-image, not to mention throwing a good party. Photos and screenprints of Warhol’s famous “friends,” in some cases personal, in other cases aspirational, from Liza Minnelli to John Wayne, will serve as a backdrop for the most important party FMoPA has ever thrown: Saturday night’s black-tie gala and fundraiser. Equal parts eye candy and seriously canonical photography, the images come on loan to FMoPA from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh — yet another sign of the Tampa-based museum’s evolution into a significant and credible institution.

The reality of that evolution still surprises Levin, who collaborated with Flowers and curator Vincent Sorrentino to open FMoPA’s first show — the museum was then called the Tampa Gallery of Photographic Arts — in a Hyde Park storefront in 2001.

“When we opened the museum at first, we all laughed at each other and thought, ‘What if nobody shows up?’” Levin recalls. “The night we opened, there were about 150 people standing outside the door because Joanne Milani had written an article in the [Tampa] Tribune. We never looked back.”

By 2006, the fledgling gallery was ready to grow. The museum’s supporters adopted its current name and moved it downtown into a space on Tampa Street where previous retail tenants had struggled. A year later, Milani, who had left her post at the Trib, became the museum’s executive director and curator. (She still occupies the latter position.) Along the way, Levin says, FMoPA begged and borrowed photographs to mount nearly 50 exhibitions, built a permanent collection of some 200 photos, launched educational programs including photography classes, and expanded the museum’s membership base to 800 people — all on the slimmest of shoestring budgets. Even today, FMoPA has only one paid employee: its museum manager.

With its move to the Cube, the current chairman of FMoPA’s board of directors, investment banker Roger Robeson, hopes the museum is poised for another growth spurt. If the next decade brings as much positive change for the museum as the previous one, the museum will begin to establish a permanent staff including an executive director (a post currently vacant) and a development director. Then the museum might be able to grow its nascent endowment, which Robeson describes as “tiny” but important as an indicator of FMoPA’s commitment to securing its own longevity.

“I think the new space will allow us to talk about some of these subjects,” Robeson says.

As for the space itself, it’s hard to imagine a home for the museum with more cachet than the architecturally iconic Cube. Since Palm Beach-based real estate developer Dennis Udwin bought the building last fall, it has begun to undergo a dramatic facelift. The tower lobby’s new modern look — complete with swanky Barcelona chairs and Saarinen tables — comes courtesy of Tampa-based Urban Studio Architects, and hipster baristas serve shots of espresso at a Kahwa Coffee bar in the Cube’s soaring atrium. Tasteful photo decals on the building’s windows artfully advertise FMoPA’s past and upcoming exhibitions. (A portrait of the young Clint Eastwood by legendary local photographer Bud Lee is one potential traffic-stopper.)

FMoPA representatives had approached the building’s previous owners, who lost it in foreclosure, about moving into the Cube to no avail. This time their dream intersected with Udwin’s desire to promote the property as a destination in downtown Tampa’s riverfront cultural district, opposite the Tampa Museum of Art on Curtis Hixon Park.

The inaugural Warhol showcase will be a treat for both casual art lovers and those deeply interested in contemporary photography. The 50-plus works on display include a handful of Warhol’s trademark color screenprints, including images of a blue-faced Richard Nixon, Mao Tse-tung, the Marx Brothers and Sigmund Freud. But where the exhibit really gets interesting — raw and revealing — is in its inclusion of more vernacular and improvisational media, like photo booth strips featuring Factory regular Edie Sedgwick and pop art patroness Ethel Scull. Polaroid portraits capture celebrities Minnelli (so sassy!), Grace Jones (so fierce!) and Jane Fonda (so… much hair!) in candidly fabulous form, as well as Andy himself in drag and other antic modes of self-portraiture.

Who better to help celebrate the arrival of FMoPA’s 15 minutes of fame?

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