Not so cockeyed: Tampa Bay's coming arts explosion

New horizons in Tampa Bay's cultural landscape.

click to enlarge NEW HEIGHTS: A view of the Dali's circular staircase-in-progress. - Joran Oppelt
Joran Oppelt
NEW HEIGHTS: A view of the Dali's circular staircase-in-progress.

Among the many pleasures of the South Pacific revival that recently played the Straz Center was the performance of Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush, her forthright charm making all-too-familiar songs like "A Cockeyed Optimist" sound fresh again. Cusack's Nellie registered more clear-eyed than cockeyed; yes, she was "stuck like a dope with a thing called hope," but she was not about to apologize for it.

So this week I'm taking a cue from Nellie. "Hope" and "Change" may no longer be in vogue, now that the spectacle of political sausage-making has sapped our inaugural optimism. But for Tampa Bay, particularly its cultural landscape, there are suddenly all kinds of reasons to feel optimistic.

Tampa Museum of Art/Curtis Hixon Park

Remember when just the topic of a new home for the TMA was a conversational minefield? The arguments abounded: Why did we need one when the museum was no more than a collection of old plates and a few photographs? What was wrong with the Rafael Viñoly design? What was right with it? Where was the Iorio vison, the Greco-esque will to slap up a big ol' building and damn the expense?

Well, maybe all that friction was necessary in order to produce a pearl, because the result of all the sturm und drang was a building of real architectural integrity that opens to the public on Saturday. As CL art critic Megan Voeller says in her story on the new museum, Stanley Saitowitz's austere but stunning design gets both the small details and the big picture just right. I still worry that this grey beauty will be obscured by the funhouse-in-progress that is the Glazer Children's Museum (opening later this year), and I wonder at the lack of shade in the vast, re-designed Curtis Hixon Park (wasn't that an issue in the old Curtis Hixon Park?). But there's no question that Tampa has a new landmark to be proud of. And in Todd Smith, the city has gained a charming, savvy museum director with a knack for making connections — between artworks (from both the museum and from cutting-edge Florida collectors), and between TMA and its audience.

Salvador Dali Museum

St. Pete is on its way to getting a destination museum, too. Not that the Dali wasn't already a Mecca for diehard Dali fans and Florida tourists, but Yann Weymouth's design gives the art a context more suitable than its present nondescript, low-slung warehouse. The bulbous glass "enigma" on the exterior is striking enough, evoking Dali's fluid shapes and subtly echoing the glassy curves of the neighboring Mahaffey.

But the most exciting architectural feature is inside: a circular staircase centered in a soaring atrium (a work in progress when I took a recent hard-hat tour) that feels like no other place in Tampa Bay. Should be an ideal spot for the opening gala in January, 2011.

Stageworks' new home

As Mark Leib's story points out, the recent groundbreaking for Stageworks Theatre's new home in the Channel District was a long time coming, and construction still has a long way to go. But the large, eclectic crowd that showed up for last Wednesday's ceremony was cause in itself to feel more cheerful about the possibilities for Tampa's cultural scene: a who's who of politicians (Iorio, Saul-Sena, Ferlita, Dingfelder), theater people (Stageworks' Anna Brennen and Karla Hartley, freeFall's Eric Davis, Gorilla's Bridget Bean), developers, architects, benefactors, board members, volunteers and kids from Stageworks' youth outreach programs — all gathered to support the idea that art matters.

Someone who attended the grand opening of Curtis Hixon Park told me that Mayor Iorio had seemed almosty "giddy" during her speech to the crowd that day, and she seemed similarly jazzed in her remarks at the Stageworks event. Maybe I'm susceptible to arts-positive rhetoric, but I sense genuine passion in her support of the arts as both an economic and a spiritual necessity — especially since that support is now bearing fruit.

Crislip Arcade

In a smaller but no less significant marriage of arts and commerce, this weekend sees the opening of BlueLucy's new gallery space in the revamped Crislip Arcade, a 1920s treasure being reborn as an artists' colony. The arcade, along with the rest of the Central Avenue block it occupies, escaped the wrecking ball thanks to the leadership of city councilpeople, merchants and the owner of the property.

Downtown St. Pete may have slipped into the recessionary doldrums of late, but the gallery scene is showing new promise, with brave startups in such diverse settings as Roundhouse Gallery, making ingenious use of a small storefront on MLK, and the Mindy Solomon Gallery, which manages to be at once elegant and subversive in its gleaming space off of Beach Drive.

High-speed rail — and a new Tampa greenway?

President Obama's announcement of a $1.25 billion grant toward the development of high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando was encouraging news for anyone interested in bringing Tampa Bay's transit system into the 21st — hell, even the late 20th — century. The grant also lends credence to transit changes within Tampa Bay, including a light rail system that would connect northern Hillsborough and USF with downtown and South Tampa.

But there's another sign of progress afoot (and I do mean afoot) that could come to fruition within the next three years, with or without rail. In a meeting last week of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association, Michele Ogilvie of the Metropolitan Planning Organization revealed one of the most exciting plans for Tampa I've ever seen: a greenway in the areas under the Crosstown Expressway that could provide a route for bicyclists and pedestrians all the way from Hyde Park through downtown Tampa and into Ybor City — a walkable, sustainable path across town that could transform the way we experience our city. It's still just a vision at this point — at press time, the MPO board was due to decide on Tuesday, Feb. 2, whether to approve further research. But, according to Ogilvie, the fact that the path would use publicly owned lands makes such reuse a real possibility.

New museums, galleries, theaters, maybe even a newly walkable Tampa — call me cockeyed, but that all sounds pretty cool.