Tampa Bay Museums Explore New Collaborations

Among the many cultural assets in the Tampa Bay region, the area's art museums bestow a definite prestige and pride to the larger community.

The region has an impressive range of art museums to experience -- each unique in its own right -- from the world-famous The Ringling in Sarasota and The Dali in St. Petersburg to the encyclopedic collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg to works spanning the ancient to the contemporary at the Tampa Museum of Art, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, the Contemporary Art Museum and the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa to the Leepa-Rattner Museum in Tarpon Springs, plus several others with smaller collections.

Collectively, their strength can serve to bind the greater community and enhance quality of life, while empowering their own creative missions.

"There is a high degree of connectedness among professionals in the area,'' says Kent Lydecker, executive director of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in St. Petersburg. "Hello, we are a region! Shift the perception of the 'them' and the 'us' to more of the 'we'.'' He notes that some of the arts institutions in the greater Tampa Bay region are modest, yet ''if you start looking at the aggregate, it translates into a double-barreled resource for our community.''

The heads of these Tampa Bay institutions -- several of them relatively new to their positions here -- recognize the potential behind joining forces and are actively looking for ways to collaborate, beyond just the sharing or loaning of artifacts, intrinsic to successful exhibits.

A prime example of this is the shared exhibit the MFA is realizing with the Tampa Museum of Art (TMA) in 2014. The "My Generation: Young Chinese Artists'' exhibit, the first in the U.S. and Europe to showcase these emerging artists is a powerful single exhibit, to be hosted concurrently at both venues starting next summer.

The shared exhibit is the brainchild of Todd Smith, Exécutive Director of the Tampa Museum of Art, who came up with the idea to create a special exhibition of work by young artists never before seen outside of China. His goal is to engage multiple museums here and around the nation, and to open the door to future artistic exchanges for emerging global artists.

Bridging The Bay

The two museums also regularly hold an exclusive event aptly-called Bridging the Bay, bringing together their Gold and Platinum patrons, Collector's Circle and private clients of the Fifth Third Private Bank which underwrites the biannual parties. Mary Perry, an important donor and fundraiser for both museums who spearheads the event comments, "I'm a firm believer that we should be complementing each other, not in competition with each other.''

Also emerging is the value of cross-pollination of the arts, blending different cultural outlets and building audiences in this way. A unique joint marketing program aimed at attracting younger audiences to Sarasota's cultural hubs is in its third year. Those under 40 can take advantage of a $99 deal that provides two tickets to The Ringling, Asolo Repertory Theatre, FSU/Asolo Conservatory, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Opera, the Arts and Culture Alliance of Sarasota County, among other perks.

Another example organized by the Arts Council of Hillsborough County: The TMA recently hosted the FIVE by FIVE art exhibit and event which brought in nearly 40 live performers for patrons to enjoy while browsing the art work. Many Tampa Bay museums regularly incorporate theater and music into their exhibitions or invite opera and other cultural organizations to perform in their space.

The Hillsborough Arts Council also recently announced a new partnership with an online fundraising tool called Power2Give that is designed to attract new and different donors to specific arts projects. When the Tampa Bay portion of the site launches, it will be expected to attract donors -- particularly new donors -- to give in smaller increments online. The Bank of America provided initial seed money to start the project.

"There is a cultural omnivore phenomenon,'' says Randy Cohen, VP of DC-based Americans for the Arts, who recently visited the Tampa Bay region as part of the first regional Arts Summit. "Once you get a taste, you want more.''

Cohan says he applauds what's happening in the Tampa Bay region's arts communities, and is starting to see a trend of successful collaborations across the nation. He cites Los Angeles county arts organizations combining mailing lists, databases and, counter-intuitively, finding success in these efforts. In Columbus, Ohio, nine cultural organizations have combined back office functions (finance, marketing, HR), while maintaining their individual nonprofit identities, allowing each organization to redirect more focus and resources to the art. He has seen similar examples in Tennessee and Kentucky.

"There can be some real upsides,'' says Cohen, but he cautions that planning is critical to success. "Get all the questions on the table beforehand. It is not just gaining economies of scale, but also honing artistic product.''

Universities Up The Ante

Academia is another area where the arts museums, often with longstanding relationships, are fortifying collaboration efforts. Steven High, executive director of the The Ringling, which became a Florida State University campus in 2000, says, "one of our big initiatives is how to build better integration with FSU and the museum. We are an incredible resource, but five hours away'' from FSU's main campus in Tallahassee. He is re-envisioning how to break down this geographic distance, develop courses and provide curriculum to engage with the larger student body. He also envisions forming closer ties to the University of South Florida (USF) with multiple campuses and museums in the Tampa Bay region.  

Collaboration is also a priority for Ann Larsen, head of the Leepa-Rattner Museum, housed at the St. Petersburg College campus in Tarpon Springs. She encourages the use of the museum as a "learning laboratory'' -- not just for studying the great masters, but also as a venue and fodder for a range of studies -- from testing perceptions in neuropsychology class to hands-on opportunities for education or mental health majors.

Virtually all the local museums collaborate with schools or community groups to further their outreach programs for K-12 children, which in turn can bring in a more diverse or underserved audience.

Jane Simon, director of the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts in Tampa, oversees a program that takes kids from the local Boys and Girls Clubs out on a photo shoot and gives them a basic lesson on photography.

"When we show their photos, we have a party with the students and their parents,'' she explains. For most families, it is their first visit to the museum.

As each of the museums explores additional opportunities for collaborations that cross traditional boundaries, among the goals is to build the arts audience and explore new scenarios for sharing and possibly converging resources and costs.

As Donor Mary Perry puts it simply, "Collaboration -- if you don't partner, you're not going to succeed!''

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and cultural enthusiast, based in Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant for regional and global businesses. Though she has always been passionate about arts and culture, she spent many years in the tech and B2B corporate worlds both in the U.S. and abroad. With a degree in Economics and International Relations from The American University in Washington, DC, she considers politics her favorite sport and follows it avidly with as much humor as she can muster. Based in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa, Kendra is a mother and wife, a news junkie, and lover of all things creative.