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Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014
The Sun

Column: Artful collaboration for two museums


Published:

“My Generation: Young Chinese Artists.”

No, it wasn’t exactly a stop-the-presses moment for most locals. But when it was announced that the Tampa Museum of Art and St. Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts were collaborating on an exhibit — and not just any exhibit — it was a big deal.

I’ve seen the TMA part. It is.

This unprecedented, regional exhibit of more than 100 works — that runs through September — is important, because it’s a reminder that the enlightened self-interest whole of Tampa Bay is always bigger than its parochial parts. It goes for trade missions, tourism, mass transit and mega-event pitches. And it goes for the arts.

“My Generation,” which opened earlier this month on both sides of Tampa Bay, is significant on multiple levels.

♦ It’s a show of eclectic distinction, the first survey in this country of post-Mao generation artists — 27 in all, each born after 1976, each a product of their government’s one-child policy. Across a range of media — from paintings and photography to installations and video — the artists explore societal issues, including the environment, and personal themes, including alienation. Their focus is universality. Satiric riffs, but no political manifestos.

♦ No less impressive: It’s originating right here, not in one of the more traditional metropolitan art centers. Yes, it’s a coup. “China,” observed TMA executive director Todd Smith, “is now part of the global art network.” And so, by association, is Tampa Bay.

Befitting an exhibit of art-world interest and recognition, the opening drew arts writers from Asia in addition to those from U.S. publications. And, yes, there’s a scholarly catalog.

♦ The dual-site approach breaks new cultural ground: a big, high-profile show divided between two museums — in separate cities. Tampa Bay: cutting edge. Maybe we should get used to it.

♦ “My Generation” highlights and underscores a can-do approach that trumps provincialism. But it took some pragmatic maneuvering.

Art serendipity had provided TMA’s Smith with an unexpected opportunity, but not enough space was uncommitted. So he approached his receptive, MFA counterpart, Kent Lydecker, and the rest — once logistics and Chinese “vetting” (national censors) were worked out — is unfolding, local-art history.

Speaking of vetting, I asked 37-year-old installation artist Jin Shan, the creator of a whimsical Tyvek structure named “No Man City,” about artistic life in a country that, well, “vets” art. Jin, who regularly travels between New York City and Shanghai, acknowledged that while the environment was hardly stifling, limits always matter.

“Yes, you could say, ‘self censorship’ is a reality,” he said matter-of-factly.

I also asked him where he had learned his English, which was quite good. Was it in school?

“No, in bars,” he said with a universally impish grin. And then proceeded to drop some vintage bar banter.

It is, indeed, a global village.

“My Generation” reflects it, and local arts leaders made it happen here by sharing a vision — and a lot more.

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Pasco County, as we know, is seriously rethinking the graduation ritual of honoring class valedictorians and salutatorians. It is either a pedagogical idea whose time has come or an affront to a tradition steeped in academic accomplishment.

I’ll opt for the former.

In simpler times, you could quickly calculate GPAs and determine who topped the list. “Congrats, you’re the val; you’re the sal.”

These days, the GPA could be the tip of an academic Rubik’s Cube. It means factoring in everything that generates high school credit: from courses taken in middle school to Advanced Placement and online courses. What of virtual school and dual enrollment scenarios? Are comparables being compared?

And what of students who ace everything, but their ace-ing is somewhat limited because of extracurricular activities and a part-time job?

If you can’t guarantee a level playing field, should you be playing this uber-competitive game that separates winners and also-rans by hundredths of a point?

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