Tampa's gain is Charleston's loss 

House Divided

Todd Smith, the former director of the Gibbes Museum of Art, came to Charleston in 2006 to build a new museum.

Then he discovered something he hadn't expected — it was going to take him a decade to do it.

Why?

Because there are those who sit on the museum's board of directors who want it to move forward as a civic leader and cultural innovator.

And there are those on the museum's board who want it to continue its traditional role as preserver of Charleston's art history and heritage.

In other words, it's a divided board.

It was going to take Smith a long, long time to forge a compromise between polar factions, to spearhead a capital campaign at the same time, and to rally the political will necessary for any major construction project.

Smith realized the task ahead of him. And he realized he'd be in his 50s by the time he accomplished anything — a significant fact for a significant reason.

There is a shortage of able directors to head mid-sized American museums. Who could expect Smith to spend years laboring for an ideologically divided board of directors when he could probably have his pick of jobs?

So, in April, suddenly, Smith quit.

The official line was "personal reasons." Speculation was that he was pushed out.

That wasn't quite right, though.

Tom White, president of the museum's board of directors, said Smith quit to finish his PhD.

That, too, was only part of the reason.

Again, Smith wanted to oversee the completion of a major building project and he wasn't going to achieve that with a divided board of directors.

But time changes things.

According to last week's Tampa Business Journal, Smith was announced as the new director of the Tampa Museum of Art. He starts Oct. 6 and guess what? He was hired to oversee the building of a new museum. The newspaper reported:

"As executive director, Smith will guide the completion of construction and opening of the new 66,000-square-foot facility in downtown Tampa. He also will lead the museum's effort to become a nationally recognized major arts destination, ensure its financial stability while raising capital funds and building its endowment, and expand its collection, as well as develop progressive and innovative programs to serve the community."

Note the part about developing "progressive and innovative programs to serve the community." The Gibbes does offer many valuable programs, especially for children. But in aiming to be a "nationally recognized major arts destination," the Tampa museum's ambitions far outstrip the Gibbes Museum's plans for the future.

Tampa is thinking big. Charleston isn't. Smith was thinking big. His board wasn't. So Tampa's gain is now Charleston's loss. A major, troubling, and preventable loss.

Smith could have given us the leadership we need to be a "nationally recognized major arts destination." We have a lot (e.g., Spoleto). But Charleston needs an active, progressive art museum if it's to become a cultural leader among cities its size.

The Gibbes Museum currently has a strong and dependable leader in Angela Mack, a former curator of some of its most important exhibitions. And perhaps with Smith's departure, the Gibbes has decided to return to its roots, to remain a conservator of culture and history and art. That's respectable. There's value in that.

Even so, it looks like Smith was cherry picked by a bigger, more ambitious museum in Florida. So it's hard not to take that as a setback for Charleston.

All because a confused board couldn't decide what to do with what it had.


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