Extreme Makeover: Museum Edition

Tampa Bay may be in a real estate slump, but the cultural sector is entering a building boom. A guide to what's opening when.

click to enlarge MODEL HOME: Architect Yann Weymouth with a model of St. Petersburgs expanded Museum of Fine Arts, for which he designed the new Hazel Hough Wing. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
MODEL HOME: Architect Yann Weymouth with a model of St. Petersburgs expanded Museum of Fine Arts, for which he designed the new Hazel Hough Wing.

If it's true that when an art museum gets a new home, a community gets a new living room, residents of the Bay area should expect to see an extreme cultural home makeover unfold here over the next three years. Between now and 2011, four local art museums plan to more than double their collective exhibition space, and a fifth institution could join them by 2013. Aside from showcasing artworks, these new cultural "houses" will further enliven downtowns, help redevelop waterfronts and provide a public space for people to meet.

But first, all but one of them must be built.

One thing seems certain: a new museum is a good investment, even when taxpayers foot part of the bill. According to a 2004 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts, in a single year alone the economic impact of the arts in Tampa Bay is $521.3 million. While the visual arts can lay claim to only a fraction of that impact, the presence of a strong art museum in a city's cultural landscape can raise the tide of awareness and attendance for cultural institutions in music and theater, for example, and vice versa. (And so St. Petersburg, with a new Mahaffey Theater, an expanded Museum of Fine Arts and plans for new facilities for American Stage, the Salvador Dalí Museum and The Arts Center, is sitting pretty on a wealth of future cultural synergy; similarly, the developers of the Grand Central condo in Tampa's Channelside district saw the benefit of including within it a new home for Stageworks Theater Company.) Committed investment in the arts sends a message that a community values creativity, and while downtown arts districts are probably overrated as urban panaceas, waving the arts-and-culture flag is essential to attracting retiring baby boomers and young millennials, the generations expected to drive the economy in coming years.

Shepherding a new museum to completion is a Herculean task. Navigating stakeholders' needs and expectations, the politics of trustee boards and government funding, and — oh! — the never-ending fundraising, takes leaders with vision. And if you survive that stuff, the logistical details might just kill you.

"Everyone has moved their home or apartment at one time or another, and we all know how disruptive that is and how long it takes to get reorganized. If you just imagine moving the contents of a 40,000-square-foot building and a library and art collection that requires very careful packing and the associated equipment, you can imagine," says Ken Rollins, interim director of the Tampa Museum of Art, about his institution's move to West Tampa during construction on the TMA's new building downtown.

Factor in the inevitable introspective journey toward a new identity that most museums make in tandem with new construction, and you wind up with a process that combines elements of childbirth, reconstructive surgery and a personality readjustment. That such transformations are taking place around the Bay foretells a new cultural golden age for the area. In chronological order of their projected completion dates, here are some of the art museum projects we'll be watching unfold in the next few years. After all, their new homes will be ours, too.

Museum of Fine Arts: March 2008

Compared to the fanfare that has surrounded other institutions (say, the TMA), attention to the expansion of St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts has been downright modest. Of course, the MFA's stately Beach Drive home — the peach-colored union of a classical temple and a Mediterranean villa — isn't making way for a whole new building, just adding a sleek, new 33,000-square-foot wing tucked subtly behind the older structure while more than doubling the museum's footprint. (Not subtly enough, however, for residents of the Cloisters condominiums, which is located across Beach Drive from the museum. Six of them filed a lawsuit last August claiming that the new wing was being built one story higher than promised and as a result would block their water views. According to MFA Director John Schloder, a judge dismissed the claim, the residents refiled, "and the Museum has filed for its dismissal again.")

In the region, only Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art outshines the MFA, which has a well-earned reputation for its extensive permanent collection of tourist magnets like Impressionist paintings, a comprehensive representation of Western art history and artifacts from around the world.

The new Hazel Hough Wing echoes the colors and textures of the original MFA building in restrained, glass-and-concrete box form. Presenting a seamless integration with the older building to Beach Drive, the wing puts a bolder face to the waterfront, leveraging the museum's previously neglected "back yard" for the first time. Visitors will soon enter the museum through the new wing from either Beach Drive or the Bayshore Drive waterfront and congregate in a 2-story glass conservatory reminiscent of an indoor Italian piazza or town square. As visitors gather in this space for coffee or lunch at a new café or to attend an event, the temptations of both the museum's permanent collection and traveling exhibits will be nearby, says MFA director John Schloder.