Hidden Treasures

Urban Explorer Handbook 2006

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click to enlarge GLOVES ON: Elaine Gustafson pulls out one of the Solander boxes, specially made to store works on paper. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
GLOVES ON: Elaine Gustafson pulls out one of the Solander boxes, specially made to store works on paper.

Where: The Tampa Museum of Art basement

Public access: No way. Entry is limited to a select few staffers, and the security system — cameras, alarms, keys, codes — makes sure it stays that way.

Element of danger: If you tried to get by those alarms? Danger of serious jail time, we suspect.

Why we went: One of the recurring themes in the case for a new museum has been the need for more space. So we wondered: Where's all the art we don't get to see?

What we discovered: On the very day Mayor Iorio was announcing that the museum's move to The Cubes was almost a done deal, we were touring the current building's inner sanctum with Director of Exhibitions and Collections Elaine Gustafson. An unprepossessing series of vaults and storerooms, the basement is a mix of the mundane and the startling. The flat files called Solander boxes, in which works on paper are kept, are nothing much to look at — but then you turn a corner and see artworks stacked next to each other in wild juxtapositions you'd never see in a gallery. The photographer Burk Uzzle was so taken with the hodgepodge in one storeroom that he recorded it in a photo, which itself is stored down here along with many of the objects he shot (including a gigantic papier-mâché tiger from Haiti).

The majority of the museum's contemporary collection is in storage, says Gustafson, whereas almost all of its treasured antiquities are on display. There are close to 7,000 objects in all; as the museum's curator of contemporary art, she knows most of them, but still cherishes the moments when she can get away from computer and telephone and go prospecting for art. (Her current project: selecting works for The Narrative Tradition, a show opening in July.)

Paintings, drawings and sculpture aren't the only valuables kept under lock and key; the museum's liquor stash is also here, in an impressively large padlocked closet. Given the uncharacteristically harmonious reaction to recent developments, staffers may need to tap that supply for a few parties soon. There's a reminder of past disputes, though, in a rendering of the rejected Vinoly design — no longer on display upstairs, it's now propped up rather unceremoniously against a wall.

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