Florida Museum Of Photographic Art: A Cultural Gem In Downtown Tampa

In the last year, Downtown Tampa has flourished with the unveiling of a new Tampa Museum of Art and the new Glazer Children's Museum, the addition of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park and continued work on Tampa's Riverwalk.

But beyond those notable landmarks, there are lots of little places in downtown to discover on your lunch break or during an unexpected afternoon shower. Make the turn onto Jackson Street from Ashley Drive, for instance, and you'll find the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts tucked into its 3,000-square-foot space. No grand entry, just a recessed door and a dark green awning adorned with the museum's name will greet you.

"We like to joke that we're the best kept secret in Tampa," Museum Manager Joyce M. Zevola says. "We have all these offices around us and sometimes they don't even realize we're here."

There are some people paying attention, though. Creative Loafing named FMoPA's Contemporary Chinese Photography exhibit the Best Museum Exhibition of 2009. Last year, the Tampa Downtown Partnership honored the museum with an Urban Excellence Award.

Making their mark on the Tampa art scene has been an ongoing process for the nonprofit since its inception in 2001.

Co-founded by Hyde Park lawyer Charles "Chuck" J. Levin and art dealer Vincent Sorrentino of New York and Tampa, with assistance from business owner Cynthia Flowers, the Tampa Gallery of Photographic Arts spent its early years in a series of modest Old Hyde Park Village boutiques in South Tampa.

FMoPA Curator Joanne Milani remembers the deep impression the humble space had on her as a former art critic for The Tampa Tribune.

"They didn't have any money, but they were doing better shows than the major museums," she recalls.

Her enthusiasm for the project didn't go unnoticed -- she joined the board of directors at Levin's request in 2004 and began a four-year position as executive director in 2006.

By then it was clear the thriving museum, along with its roster of nearly 200 members, was ready to stretch its legs. The decision to adopt the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts as a new name and move downtown was a signal to the Tampa art community.

"I think it showed that we were serious -- the board took everything much more seriously," Milani says.

Seeing Is Believing

FMoPA realized it was in a unique position to captivate a wide audience. It's one of just two museums in Florida dedicated solely to photographic arts. The other is Daytona Beach's Southeast Museum of Photography.

"Photography is more accessible to people," Milani says. "You and I can at least pretend we're photographers."

But if pretending doesn't cut it for you, FMoPA offers instructional classes to take your photography skills to the next level.

On any given week the museum hosts as many as seven classes covering a vast array of topics: learning the business of photography from award-winning photographer Pierre Dutertre, a Cell Phone Photography Workshop with 2008 Tampa Photographer Laureate Jeremy Chandler and even Kids' Photography Workshops with part-time staff member Jenn Gilgan.

"For me, the best part of this job is working with the kids once a month -- watching their little light bulbs go off," Gilgan beams.

Educating children is an integral part of the museum's service to the community and an idea that evolved very early on, according to Milani.

"It was Chuck's idea that volunteers would bring in cameras to disadvantaged children," she says. "They help them shoot their pictures, choose them and we display them in the gallery."

The Children's Literacy Through Photography program has continued to inspire young minds from  Alpha House of Tampa and Metropolitan Ministries, among others, through grants from the Eckerd Family Foundation and Verizon.

A myriad of educational classes and community programs have certainly helped the museum attract some of its current 750 members, but it's the acclaimed exhibitions that have drawn international recognition.

Naked City: Photography from Vassar College's Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center had a successful run from Nov. 18 through Jan. 28. The exhibition, which coincided with Vassar College's 150th anniversary, garnered attention from online art magazine Art Daily and the London Observer's New Review's Month in Photography.

"We try to get a variety of different photography," Milani explains. "Avant garde, historical photography, journalistic photography -- you want to have a well-balanced meal."

Seeking Permanent Home

Keeping true to its word of embracing variety, the museum kicked off New Year's Day by launching its first International Photo Competition, which accepts submissions through March 31.

There's also an impressive list of diverse exhibitions lined up for this Spring. Next up is Natural Fashion: Art and the Body featuring photographs from German-born photographer Hans Silvester. A presentation of 72 black-and-white "Classic Images" from celebrated photographer Ansel Adams will follow beginning April 28.

Preparation for an exhibition requires planning every aspect from marketing to the food and beverages served on opening night -- a task that fully utilizes the skills of Zevola, former logistics coordinator at Rebuilding Together Tampa Bay.

"We have contact with the public, the bookkeeping aspect, interns and staff to coordinate -- it's all interrelated," she explains.

Helping to keep things organized is FMoPA's three interns -- Samantha Thomas, Marysia Lopez and Jane Goldschmidt -- who run the gamut from digitizing the museum's permanent collection to contacting patrons for renewal memberships.

"The interns fill a need on things that really make a difference," Zevola says.

Twenty-three-year-old Goldschmidt, spends nearly 20 hours a week assisting with various office tasks: photo copying, stuffing envelopes, running to Allegra Print & Imaging to pick up invitations and greeting visitors.

"The behind the scenes aspect of what goes on to make things productive and enjoyable for the community is something I enjoy," Goldschmidt says.

Staff members have their own ideas of where they'd like to see the museum go in coming years, but expanding to a permanent home downtown is top on everyone's list.

"As Chuck [Levin] says, 'A city can't have too many museums,' " Milani quotes. "We're not in competition with the Tampa Museum of Art -- we just amplify what's there."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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