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The Tampa Museum of Art: A Frame for Display

By Jim Caton

In the five years since moving into the striking new Cornelia Corbett Center on Gasparilla Plaza downtown, the Tampa Museum of Art has developed a distinct identity and a distinguished reputation.

"In recent years, focus within contemporary art has centered on photography and new media," says the museum's acting executive director Seth Pevmick, "including Leo Villareal's Sky (Tampa), a 14,000 square foot LED installation on the building's south façade." Sky Tampa employs 144 four-foot long light-emitting diode illuminators arranged behind two layers of perforated aluminum. As part of the museum's permanent holdings, this dynamic and mesmerizing work is on display every evening beginning at dusk, presenting New York installation artist Villareal's signature patterned dance of colored lights. The building itself was designed with perhaps a more understated effect in mind. As Pevmick notes, Saitowitz "designed the building as what he calls 'a neutral frame for the display of art, ? a beautiful but blank container, a scaffold, to be completed by its contents.' The building, in other words, should not be seen as its own art object?as some other art museums seem to be?but rather as a light-filled box with large, open spaces specifically designed to present art to great effect." Whether the respective purposes of architect Saitowitz and artist Villareal complement or contradict each other is perhaps a question for the viewer to ponder, but the museum's presence on the Hillsborough River is undeniably impressive and attractive.

The Tampa Museum of Art was founded in 1979, succeeding the Tampa Bay Art Center and the Tampa Junior Museum. "The Museum occupied a riverfront building in downtown Tampa until 2007," says Pevmick, "when it moved to an interim location to prepare for demolition of the old building and construction of a new state-of-the-art facility." The museum opened in its new home in February of 2010, and in 2011 the Cornelia Corbett Center was the winner of the Chicago Athenaeum American Architecture Jury Award. From its inception, the museum has dedicated itself to ancient art on the one hand and recent modern art on the other. It is only since moving into its new home, though, that it has taken on its concentration on contemporary photography and new media. Works by contemporary photographic artists Cindy Sherman, Chuck Close, Sandy Skoglund, Jerry Uelsmann, and John Baldessari are complemented by earlier works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, and Berenice Abbott. In addition to its holdings, the Tampa Museum of Art has been involved in creating notable exhibitions. In 2014, Pevmick says that the museum "organized or co-organized three major exhibitions, each with its own richly illustrated catalogue. Two of these exhibitions, Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult, and Daily Life and My Generation: Young Chinese Artists, have traveled to other museums, raising the national profile of the Tampa Museum of Art."

In addition to its strength in presenting the new and avant-garde, the museum takes an interest in looking at the familiar in new ways. "Our current big exhibition is American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts," says Pevmick. "This traveling exhibition offers an in-depth look at the long career of one of the most popular American artists of the twentieth century, a true visual storyteller famous for illustrating many covers of the Saturday Evening Post. More than 300 of these covers are on view, together with more than 50 original oil paintings and a number of photographs and other archival material related to Rockwell's artistic process."

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An English teacher for twenty-five years, first at a college near Buffalo and then at...

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