The collaborative exhibit connects contemporary artists from four counties in three major art institutions.
Heading north from Sarasota, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge emerges over the horizon to greet drivers. Standing 430 feet above Tampa Bay, it looms as an imposing structure — a feat of engineering that connects Sarasotans to St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Its grand scale makes it a fitting icon to lend its name to “Skyway,” a collaborative contemporary art exhibit, which runs through Oct. 15, at The Ringling, The Museum of Fine Arts and the Tampa Museum of Art, simultaneously.
The bridge is a symbolic reminder of the physical distance separating the three areas — and as a result, their respective arts communities.
But “Skyway: A Contemporary Collaboration” questions just how far the distance really is. A first-of-its-kind collaboration between the three institutions, the exhibition was conceived to create a more cohesive sense of artistic community between the three cities — bridging the gap between them.
“When the conversations about this exhibit started, we wanted to highlight the art being created in our area,” says Christopher Jones, curator of photography and new media at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. “These arts communities feel so far apart, but in reality, they’re only 45 minutes up the interstate. It was surprising how many of these artists were unfamiliar with one another. There’s a hotbed of incredible art being made in the Tampa Bay area, and we wanted to collaborate to help connect it.”
“Skyway” began coming together last fall. Following a call for artists, Jones, as well as fellow curators Seth Pevnick and Joanna Robotham, of the Tampa Museum of Art; Katherine Pill and Robin O’Dell, of the Museum of Fine Art; and guest juror Diana Nawi of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, narrowed down more than 300 applicants to the 57 participating artists from Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties, spanning the full range of mediums, ages and experience levels.
Each museum features works by artists from all counties, exposing artists and visitors alike to a broad cross section of work.
In Sarasota, The Ringling features work by 11 artists. Perhaps most immediately striking is “City, Beautiful,” a sculpture by Robert Aiosa.
Built with raw construction materials, the large sculpture greets guests immediately upon entering the gallery. With its unpolished features and wooden support beams, it evokes imagery of palm trees and other Floridian landscaping.
“Robert comes from Pennsylvania,” says Jones. “It’s interesting to see his rugged work contrasted with the rest of the museum and its grounds, and to see him playing with landscaping motifs unique to this area. It certainly expresses current social themes, with the rapid expansion and development in Florida.”
Opposite the sculpture, Jason Lazarus, a photo professor at USF, offers a more subtle, yet equally striking photo installation. Spanning the majority of the gallery’s eastern wall, the installation includes a series of photos collected from thrift stores. They’re installed face down, however, only displaying the handwritten notes on their backs, intriguing the viewer about the contents on the reverse side.
One in particular, dated May 21, 1846, bears an especially teasing script:
“Sarasota races ‘Isabel.’”
“This installation explores the idea of photos as bearers of information,” says Jones. “You can’t help but wonder what’s on the other side.”
The exhibition offers local artists — many of whom have yet to have to establish a regional reputation — an opportunity to display their work in a renowned, prestigious institution.
“This is definitely the biggest opportunity I’ve had thus far in my career,” says Cassia Kite, a Sarasota artist whose soundstitching work — a multimedia project that transforms colors from a hand-stitched image into a musical composition — is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. “It’s humbling. The idea of bridging these communities was intriguing to me. I used to live in St. Pete, and I hardly ever came to Sarasota. The distance seems so much farther than it really is. So this concept is wonderful; there’s so much incredible work being made in the area that needs to be seen.”
More than exposure, Sarasota artist Nathan Skiles says the exhibition also helps cement local contemporary artists’ place in cultural and artistic history.
“For an artist, the museum system is one of ultimate venues to show your work,” he says. “It’s also a connection to a more expansive history. This places us within the continuum of art history. It’s not just an opportunity to show work. It’s bigger than that. This concept of mixing is what’s going to introduce people to new artists and forge new connections and bigger networks.”
For Jones, the chance to highlight contemporary work and collaborate with area institutions was refreshing.
“It’s exciting for me to meet the artists in our area, and see what’s going on in these communities,” he says. “It reinvigorates my own work. I would encourage people to visit all three museums. I think they’ll be impressed with the quality of work these artists are creating.”