Tampa's gain is Charleston's loss

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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 who sit on the museum's board of directors who want it to continue its traditional role as preserver of Charleston's arts history and heritage.

It's a divided board.

It was going to take a long time to sort things out, to get everyone in line to build something the city can be proud of. Smith realized the daunting task before him. He realized he'd be in his 50s before building anything in a small town that increasingly didn't want him anyway.

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 because he wanted to wrap up an unfinished PhD. That, too, was only part of the reason.

Smith wanted to oversee the completion of a major building project, a feather in the cap of any arts administration and a platform from which one can aim for the big leagues of the museum world.

Now a news report on Monday suggests Smith is poised to achieve his goal.

According to the Sept. 22 issue of the Tampa Business Journal, Smith has been hired as the 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:

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 [italics mine], ensure its financial stability while raising capital funds and building its endowment, and shape and expand its collection, as well as develop progressive and innovative programs to serve the community, the release said.

Note the part about developing "progressive and innovative programs to serve the community." The Gibbes does offer many valuable programs, especially for children. But this is simply a different scale and intensity of ambition.

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 and preventable loss.

Smith could have provided the leadership and the vision to make Charleston a "nationally recognized major arts destination." We have a lot — Spoleto, for instance. Even so, a progressive and ambitious museum is what's needed if Charleston is to be a cultural leader of cities its size.

Though we have a fine administrator, Angela Mack, a former curator, currently heading the Gibbes Museum of Art, it's hard not to see this development as a setback for Charleston. And for what reason?

Because a divided board couldn't decide what to do with what it had.

I'll say it if no one else will: This is embarrassing.

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