Collaborative Skyway 20/21 art exhibition at 4 local museums moves forward

Back in 2017, the exhibition Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration debuted as a multi-museum exhibition spanning the Tampa Museum of Art, The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, and the Museum of Fine Art St. Petersburg. The main kicker of the show was that it featured all local artists from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, and Sarasota counties.
 
Because of its success, the museums decided to host a second version in 2020, which was thwarted by COVID-19. In lieu of settling for an online exhibition only, the institutions worked together to create a new in-person exhibition starting as early as May.
 
“One aspect of this show that’s rewarding is that it’s a snapshot of what’s going on in the region at the moment,” says Chris Jones, the Stanton B. and Nancy W. Kaplan Curator of Photography and Media Arts at The Ringling Museum of Art, during a Zoom lecture about the pending show. “At the beginning when we were planning and discussing this project, it really felt like undiscovered country. It felt very experimental: Is this feasible to do this all at the same time? How do we coordinate? It’s very exciting that we’re now on the second iteration after growing and expanding to this next round.”
 
As part of its second collaboration, Skyway is now branching out to work with the University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum. While you may recognize some of the 51 artists from the first Skyway, new faces include artists Ibrahim Bassmi, Dolores Coe, Keith Crowley, Dakota Gearhart, and Karl Kelly.
 
To whittle down the artists from an open call pool, curators from the four museums teamed up with guest juror Claire Tancons, an independent curator. As a new part of the juror process, artists who made it to Round 2 were a part of in-person studio visits (well before COVID-19 closures).

Added perspective = big change 
 
“Having new curatorial eyes on this project in this iteration was a big change. Ola Wlusek [Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Ringling Museum of Art] and Sarah Howard [Curator of Public Art and Social Practice at USF CAM] have very distinct practices that add to this second iteration. We have a really wonderful breadth of curatorial eyes here. We are a team of very
Skyway is truly an unprecedented project in that none of the curators involved can think of similar multiple cross-institute exhibitions, putting the Tampa Bay Area on the art world map for innovative collaborative projects.
diverse interests, which can always be a bit of a tricky thing, but we have fun,” says Joanna Robotham, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Tampa Museum of Art.
 
One of the challenges of bringing together a diverse set of regional artists is finding curatorial threads within the works for a loose theme. At the MFA St. Pete, the artists selected are engaged with the natural environment, while USF CAM is working under an umbrella theme of material exploration and transformation.
 
“At The Ringling, the theme is the lack of theme and the diversity. We will be showing work by eight artists who work in very different ways. One thing that will be visible is the variety of mediums from photo-based to sculpture and performance. It will be an exciting dynamic and presentation,” Wlusek explains.
 
Skyway is truly an unprecedented project in that none of the curators involved can think of similar multiple cross-institute exhibitions, putting the Tampa Bay Area on the art world map for innovative collaborative projects. In addition to that unique characteristic, the value of this exhibition lies in raising up local artists and creating new connections with our Florida neighbors. 
 
“The Sunshine Skyway Bridge in some ways can be a barrier between our art communities. I think it’s very beneficial for the artists in Sarasota to be able to show in St. Pete and Tampa, and vice versa,’’ Jones says. “In the first iteration, I was surprised at how infrequently artists here were connecting with the communities north of us. Afterward, a lot of great connections were made, but we’re hoping to cross-pollinate and have more correspondence outside our immediate community.”
 
Extra time = new projects
 
During the nine months of COVID-caused delay since the original Skyway exhibition date, many artists took advantage to make ambitious new work.
 
“We’ve been conducting Zoom studio visits to catch up with artists and see what kind of work they’ve made in the last year. Some artists are working on projects completely different from when they first applied,” Robotham says. “One artist is doing things about people on the front line of COVID-19, so it’s going to be very raw. It’s going to be interesting how the artists tackle everything that’s happened in 2020.”
 
Kirk Ke Wang, one of the selected Skyway artists who was also included in the first iteration, has seized this opportunity of time.
 
“A lot has happened in these nine months. That also made me change the work I am thinking about doing, which still deals with issues of Asian-American culture and life, but more about peoples’ attitude towards Asian-Americans and COVID,” Wang says. “For the last few weeks and even years, it’s been a struggle for all of us as a group that is so vulnerable socially and politically. People have come up right to me blaming me for COVID. It makes you angry to be an Asian-American, but I’m using a bit of bitter humor to address that and how we deal with it.”
 
In his new project proposal for the Tampa Museum of Art, Wang plans on incorporating painting, sculpture, and conceptual video work in an immersive installation thinking about COVID not just as a virus, but as a social virus. The piece is appropriately titled Sending COVID, with COVID as an acronym for Corruption, Oppression, Violence, Indifference, and Discrimination.
 
Large, 30-inch heads -- covered in yellow fabric as a stereotype for Asian skin -- will be suspended from the ceiling. A hole in the bottom will allow visitors to stick their heads inside, where they will be confronted with a kaleidoscope of broken mirrors. Videos projected inside will be collected from social media from specific topics from the COVID acronym. Beyond these floating heads affixed to the wall will be engulfing paintings of the God in Spirit, which are guardian spirits who protect from evil.
 
“In China there’s this saying, ‘Crisis is the opportunity.’ This time gave me the chance to contemplate these new ideas and have the time for research. It’s all based on this unfortunate event, but I’m changing from being passive about it to positively facing towards it.”
 
Upcoming show dates
  • Ringling (June 20-Sept. 26)
  • Tampa Museum of Art (June 3-Oct. 10)
  • MFA St. Pete (May 22-Aug. 8)
  • USF CAM (June 14-Sept 1)
To see the complete list of artists included and find out more information, visit the Skyway 20/21 website

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Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”
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