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Taking Flight
 
July 18, 2005 - How the enterprising artists of Experimental Skeleton and an open-minded city official pulled off the improbable.

BY ERIC SNIDER, Weekly Planet


It was an idea so simple and obvious you figured it had to be doomed. There were obstacles: For starters, the plan revolved around municipal government. City real estate and legal personnel would have their hands in it. No money was to change hands. In all, there were likely dozens of reasons to walk away.

But the idea people hung in there. The city got on board, and after a year of bureaucratic wading, Tampa handed over a 5,000-square-foot raw space adjacent to the Amtrak train station near Channelside to an arts organization called Experimental Skeleton.

Rent free.

The visual art group had to cover liability insurance and minor upgrades to the space. But in the end, Experimental Skeleton was able to open Flight 19, a rustic gallery with brick walls and big bay doors, last Friday. It may not be perfect - there's no plumbing and no AC (and no plans to add either), and the deal with the city includes an exit clause. But it's theirs for now, and it's free.

Essentially, the city of Tampa said to a bunch of maverick artists, "No one's using it. Why don't you go ahead?" It's widely believed to be the first time the city has provided free space for artists.

In an era when one of the hottest trends in urban America is to use the arts and artists to spur economic development and enhance quality of life, in a city whose mayor has identified the arts as one of her five strategic priorities, the Experimental Skeleton deal does not exactly send out shock waves.

But it is a toe-in-the-water move that exhibits good will to our long-struggling community of visual artists, and could lead to something bigger. Perhaps the coolest aspect of the whole deal is that it was not part of a grand scheme, but resulted from a bit of serendipity and a lot of common sense.

On an appropriately toasty early afternoon the week before Flight 19 launches, head Skeleton Joe Griffith toils away in the newly pressure-cleaned art space. He's a burly guy dressed in baggy green shorts and a stained T-shirt of a similar hue; paint-flecked loafers cover mismatched socks. His bushy dark hair is tucked under a sleeve that was cut from an old striped shirt.The group's first exhibition, by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo fame, has arrived in crates; Griffith and cohort Brian Taylor have been unloading the pieces and working up a sweat. Griffith surveys the rich brick walls, the barred windows trimmed with industrial green, the same color as the bay doors.

"It's crazy; it's a dream space," he says, as if still pinching himself. Griffith and his father have done some basic wiring; all that's left to add is track lighting. He says that the members of Experimental Skeleton have put about $2,000 into the project.

The large rectangular edifice, with 12-foot ceilings, was for 72 years the baggage room at Tampa's main rail depot. Built in 1912, Union Station gradually fell into disrepair and closed in '84. When a consortium of public and private groups restored the facility in the late '90s, the money wasn't there to complete the baggage area. The city figured an outside interest would lease the space and pay to finish it out. That's still the hope. In fact, a For Lease sign for the building still stands on Nebraska Avenue nearby.

If there's a problem with the arrangement between the city and Experimental Skeleton, it's that it could end abruptly. There's a 30-day out clause for both sides, but realistically speaking that's an option only the city is apt to use.

"It's a gesture, that's all it is," says Art Keeble, executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. "The city is looking to rent that space. [The artists] will spend their money and be thrown out in six months."

The most cynical view is that the city of Tampa, by turning over the baggage building to a motley group of artists, will raise the profile of what was essentially dead space. "In a way, it could be bringing about its own downfall," says Paul Wilborn, the city's creative industries manager, who pushed the deal through Tampa's bureaucracy. "Here's a building that no one knows where it is and now a lot of people will be walking through it. But we've never concealed the fact that the arrangement was temporary."

But how temporary? Wilborn says it'll take an outside interest $250,000 to $300,000 to transform the space into an office or restaurant. The building would lease at market rates and, because it's been officially designated as historic, a new tenant would have to keep the exterior the same. All this serves to dampen interest. Joe Pullara of the city real estate department, who helped expedite the Experimental Skeleton deal, says that, while he's had inquiries, there are no hot suitors for the building at the moment. Wilborn added that even if an offer to lease comes in tomorrow, it would take several months to run through municipal channels.

Experimental Skeleton goes in with eyes wide open. Griffith says they got the name Flight 19 from "the first group of airplanes in the Navy to disappear in the Bermuda Triangle. The ephemeral nature of this project means that we will be here and then we might disappear."

He hopes, naively perhaps, to get three or four years' use out of Flight 19. The thought of getting bounced concerns him, but "I think it's our responsibility to make it vital enough that we will survive and keep it going, maybe in another city building. I don't like to take the victim stance. I'd rather approach it with a certain defiance: 'We're gonna do it."

I ask Wilborn if the project could be viewed as a test flight that might lead to a larger program. "I do," he replies. "We're getting a good reaction with this, and I could see us using properties in limbo and give them good temporary use. There's not many groups that would look at the baggage building, without AC or plumbing, and say, 'Wow, that's a gift you're giving me?' - but artists will."

Experimental Skeleton formed in 1999 as an offshoot of Titanic Anatomy, one of Tampa's more notorious arts collectives of that decade. In its large Ybor City loft, Titanic Anatomy put on a number of wild, well-attended events that involved visual and performance art and music. The group was eventually priced out of Ybor.Experimental Skeleton's first mission was to aid artists in finding unusual raw material for projects. "We helped an artist who grew bacteria in a six-foot petri dish," Griffith says, citing one example. "We had a strong crossover into science." The group eventually got involved in helping artists exhibit projects.

Griffith and company created a stage prop for the shock rock group The Genitorturers: a motorized strap-on phallus for frontwoman Gen. Parts of one exhibition featuring art toys turned out to be, Griffith says, "borderline pornographic."

But even with a few racy projects to its credit, Experimental Skeleton has not purposely chased controversy. In all, the artists have been thoughtful iconoclasts. The members of Flight 19's core group are all locals: Bob Dorsey, Brian Taylor, Ann Musoke Taylor, Kym O'Donnell, Devon Brady, Jan Awai and Griffith. There's also a sizeable group of confederates eager to pitch in.

When the Iorio administration began to make promises about promoting Tampa as a "city of the arts," it piqued the Skeleton crew's interest.

"We decided to stick our noses right into it," Griffith explains, "to see what we could do."

He called Wilborn. Iorio's point man for developing the city's "creative economy" had been meeting with local artists about their concerns, one of the biggest of which was work and exhibition space. Wilborn had tried to convince a number of private land owners to provide temporary free space for artists as a way to upgrade their property. "I didn't come to the table with money, I came to the table with the idea that it would make their buildings worth more," Wilborn explains. "I didn't get a whole lot of folks interested."

When Wilborn and Griffith had their first lunch meeting about a year ago, the topic of space did not jump front and center. The artist presented a booklet of Experimental Skeleton's accomplishments, and expressed a general desire to be involved in the city's cultural initiatives. The creative industries manager took note that the group had its shit together.

With thoughts of arts space hovering in his head, Wilborn had a chance discussion with Sandi Cedola in the city's housing and economic development department. She told him about the baggage room at the train station. Wilborn had not been aware of its existence, but hustled down to check it out. "The light went on," he says. "I immediately saw it as a great art space. Joe was the first guy I called when I saw it was available."

Wilborn did not put out an official call for proposals, but he did meet with a number of artists. Experimental Skeleton stood out as the leading candidate because the group had a clear-cut plan (including a year's worth of booking ideas) and was willing to include other arts groups instead of turning it into a vanity project for members.

Once the simple and obvious idea had been hatched, it would have been easy for the city bureaucracy to throw sand in the gears. But it didn't happen that way. "I run into very few no's at city hall," Wilborn says. "The process is sometimes slow and convoluted; that's just the nature of government. But everyone I talked to said 'yes.'"

He shot a memo to economic development administrator Mark Huey, who quickly greenlighted the project. Wilborn suggested that Experimental Skeleton incorporate as a nonprofit, because it would be more expeditious for the city to do business with an official entity than a collection of individuals. The group arranged for insurance and signed a "hold harmless" agreement, releasing the city from liability.

Pullara of the city real estate department worked directly with Griffith to hash out the details. What resulted was a fairly boilerplate pact in which the city agreed to license the space to Experimental Skeleton for $1 a year. The city legal department tweaked the contract, then it came before city council, which rubber-stamped it. No bureaucrats wrung their hands about handing over space to a bunch of wackos calling themselves Experimental Skeleton. No politicians expressed fears that the agreement would unleash a gang of Mapplethorpes onto city property.

"I chose these guys because they had the maturity to do good stuff, and not do anything that would really embarrass us," Wilborn says. "We could have easily gone with something more mainstream, and less interesting. What I like about these guys is that they've pushed the envelope and had fun."

Since the '80s, Tampa has been infatuated with tall, shiny things. This year's mania over the Trump Tower proposal alone shows that the city would much prefer to pump up its skyline than develop boho arts enclaves. Still, Tampa can't ignore what's happened nationally over the last decade or so, where cities have turned to the arts community to spur economic growth and neighborhood refurbishment.It's a familiar scenario: Artists, seeking large, inexpensive spaces, gravitate to rundown urban sectors that once housed industry. The right synergy causes a hip scene to develop, which fosters galleries, independent businesses, restaurants and nightspots.

Next thing you know, regular folks want to live there. That cues developers, who bust out the condo plans. Rents skyrocket and the artists, the ones yet to find commercial success, are forced to move on.

This kind of gentrification is common throughout U.S. cities. Tampa's most notorious case was Ybor City, which had its moment of funkiness in the late '80s and early '90s. Then city council started handing out bar licenses like lollipops and the historic district turned into party central. Rents shot up. So long, artists. Unlike other cities with lots of blighted industrial sectors - New York's artists, for instance, have migrated from Soho to Brooklyn to New Jersey - Tampa did not offer a ready-made area for artists to move. They more or less scattered.

Still, there are places where artists connect - Seminole Heights' Covivant Gallery, for instance, and the Artists Unlimited studios in Channelside - and it's arguable that pioneering establishments like these have acted as catalysts for neighborhood improvement. Experimental Skeleton could serve a similar dual function.

But even if the only thing the Skeleton crew accomplishes is that more artists get more space to do new work, isn't that enough?

"I know it sounds like heresy, but does every single project have to be an economic gold mine?" asks Keeble of the Hillsborough Arts Council. "If it's a break-even, then the city has won, the arts community has won. There must be developers out there that understand that concept."

That might be asking a bit much, but this can be said for the Iorio administration - its commitment to fostering the arts (and all the benefits that might result) seems sincere.

Last year, the city sought an evaluation from Artspace, a Minneapolis nonprofit that specializes in developing what's called live/work communities for artists - combination residences and studios. Founded in 1979, the company has converted an old hotel in Reno, Nev., a telephone switching station in Chicago and dozens of other urban environs.

Artspace specifically works against displacing artists via gentrification. It sets up projects using low-income housing tax credits, which require dwellings to remain affordable as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That way, the artists hang around and a bohemian part of town can stay that way.

Chris Velasco, head of the Artspace consulting department, saw some promising signs for developing a sustainable arts enclave in Tampa. "One of the highest marks we gave was to community leadership," he says. "That's the most predictive factor. We had this lunch and there must've been 120 from government, business, affordable housing, historic preservation; people came from St. Pete and Clearwater. The enthusiasm was amazing. That's very predictive of a successful project."

Velasco encountered his share of cynicism from artists, and one comment stuck with him. "It was the perfect encapsulation," he recalls. "[The artist said] 'I know how it works: The city brings in the artists to chase out the rats, then bring in the developers to chase out the artists.'"

While Tampa lacks a building that would be suitable for a live/work project - even some of the abandoned cigar factories are too small, Artspace said - Wilborn says such an endeavor would likely focus on a neighborhood.

I ask Wilborn if the creation of a live/work art community is likely to happen in Tampa. "I think it's a real possibility," he says. "We've seen the success nationally. I don't really see the city bankrolling one, but we could offer support. Perhaps there's an empty building to offer for a lease arrangement. I could see us being a partner."

One other arts initiative is in the offing, Wilborn says. A former boarding house in Ybor City that had to make way for the I-4 expansion has been moved to the north part of the historic district and will be completely renovated by the Federal Highway Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation. Some time this summer, the city will issue a request for proposals from arts groups of all stripe who want to move into the two-story, 5,000-square-foot edifice called the Cueto House. Wilborn said it will come with an artist-friendly lease, much less than market rate.

In the meantime, there's Flight 19. Velasco of Artspace does not see the city's offer of free space to Experimental Skeleton, no matter how fleeting, as a piddling gesture. "It's unusual," he says. "I think it could be done more often. It can make a huge difference in the lives of the artists."Cities tend to balk at these kind of moves for a couple of reasons, he says: First, "They get tied up in a lot of questions of liability and risk management." Second, cities often take the view that "if we do this for one group, we have to do it for them all. Well, nobody said that's a rule, first of all. And isn't it better to choose someone rather than not do it at all?"

The city of Tampa chose… Experimental Skeleton. They're grateful, but they also want to make their project as inclusive as possible.

"I see Flight 19 as expanding the dialogue," Griffith says. "I'd like to see it develop into a kind of artists' think tank with exciting ideas and exhibitions - creating our own island. We'll see what happens."

eric.snider@weeklyplanet.com




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