Taking Flight 

How the enterprising artists of Experimental Skeleton and an open-minded city official pulled off the improbable.

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.


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