Compared to other more venerable cultural institutions, the Tampa Museum of Art is an art pup. The oldest U.S. art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, opened in 1844. Closer to home, the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota debuted in the late 1920s. But with the recent opening of its gem of a new building, the 30 year old TMA could itself be considered a major art destination.
I had not been impressed with architect’s renderings or virtual tours of the proposed structure. The boxy building looked cramped, squeezed in between the Hillsborough River and the new Glazer Children’s Museum. Then there was the problem of the Poe Parking Garage. The monolithic slab looked within spitting distance of the Museum’s north face.
A visit to the Museum Thursday evening completely changed my mind. Perched on a rise and cantilevered above the ground floor, the Museum dominates its space like a hovering modernist temple. Architect Stanley Saitowitz has designed a small masterwork. The soaring first floor lobby area directs one’s gaze up to multiple skylights and second floor galleries. It is fitting that we must then ascend heavenward to view the artistic treasures.
Saitowitz’s intent is that the structure does not compete with but complements art works. He accomplishes this by the judicious use of materials and smaller galleries. At no time did I feel overwhelmed by the building and was able to thoroughly enjoy the exhibitions.
On the way out, I stopped on the Museum’s verandah and took in the panoramic view of downtown Tampa - from the University of Tampa’s minarets and the Hillsborough River to a redesigned Curtis Hixon Park and high rise condos on Ashley Street. Nothing dominated and all flowed together like a twinkling patchwork quilt. Turning for a last look at the Museum’s facade and computer generated light show, I could not help but think – “This time they got it right!”
"Tampa Museum of Art" video by Matt Larson, c. 2010