Planting Seeds: An interview with museum curator Lynn Whitelaw
He helped museums and galleries grow on both sides of the Bay. And he believes the best is yet to come.
In the late 1970s, Lynn Whitelaw wandered into a small exhibition on the USF campus and was blown away by what he found on the walls.
“This was everything I knew about contemporary art and it was right here in Tampa,” he said, recalling a display of vibrant canvases by artists such as Rauschenberg and Rosenquist. “It was hidden in just a classroom, not even a gallery. That made me think, ‘Wow … things are going to be happening here.’”
Now entering his 70s, Whitelaw is a respected curator with a long history at museums on both sides of the Bay. His eyes twinkle with enthusiasm as he warmly reminisces about his early days in Tampa, where he moved in 1975 after earning a Master’s in art history and criticism from FSU.
Whitelaw taught as an adjunct at Hillsborough Community College, and soon got hired to manage the slide library and display room. At that time, our area’s visual arts venues didn’t encompass much beyond Graphicstudio, the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, and the Ringling Museum. Whitelaw scoured local papers and university bulletin boards to find hidden gems among the local exhibitions.
The Tampa Museum of Art wouldn’t open until 1979, but when Whitelaw arrived it already had roots in the Tampa Bay Art Center (and in numerous incarnations before that, reaching back to 1920). It was at the Art Center that Whitelaw experienced an exhibit of Bud Lee photographs, in a space where the University of Tampa’s Scarfone-Hartley Gallery now stands.
“You walked in, and everybody got a little mask of either Bud Lee or his wife to put in front of your face as you went around the show,” Whitelaw recalled. “That was one of the first things I attended, and I could just tell that there was some energy here. And that became the Tampa Museum of Art.”
In 1976, following the American Bicentennial, the American Alliance of Museums adopted new bylaws, expanding their focus into educational institutions and cultural centers. Whitelaw feels this provided a national catalyst that quickly impacted our area.
“It was not just visual arts now, it was also science and history,” he said. “So you start to see MOSI and the History Center evolving. You start to see art museums evolving. All of those became cultural institutions that began to strengthen in the community.”
Tampa was still a small town then. Down in Hyde Park, Whitelaw bought a home for less than $30,000 and discovered a circle of like-minded writers and artists. “There was a whole group of people that worked at the Tribune that lived in Hyde Park,” he said. “They were all really artsy kind of people and so there was a real sense of community.”
In the ’80s, Tampa’s downtown began to mushroom. “It was really exciting, the buildings started going up, and you saw Tampa emerge from the perception that it was a blue-collar town into a really megacity,” Whitelaw said. “It was hot! I’d sing the Dallas TV theme song every time I drove through Tampa.”
Local galleries like Syd Entel in Safety Harbor and Anderson-Marsh in St. Petersburg began to develop, while Tampa events like Art For Life and the Artists & Writers Ball brought creative communities together.
“That energy is real grass-roots, and that’s what it’s got to be,” he said.
Whitelaw worked as curator of education at TMA throughout the 1990s, and went on to become founding director and chief curator of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College’s Tarpon Springs campus, where we held our interview. He stepped down in 2011 to become the museum’s first established curator, concentrating on their growing permanent collection until his retirement in 2015.
“That’s the whole idea — seeds germinate,” he said. “If you don’t ever plant seeds, you have a fallow field. And we’ve got some nice seeds that are germinating right now.”
During the last five years, Whitelaw (who now lives in Palm Harbor) has watched the local energy bloom, particularly following the success of the 2017 Skyway exhibition, which brought a single show of 57 regional artists to multiple venues in a first-time collaboration between TMA, the MFA, and the Ringling.
“It’s a very exciting time, I think, for the visual arts,” he said. “It finally emerged.”
And the biggest thing that’s missing now? More private galleries — spaces like Leslie Curran’s Articles Gallery in St. Pete, and Tracy Midulla’s Tempus Projects in Tampa. “Here in this area we have Rocky Bridges two blocks from here,” Whitelaw said, speaking about the museum vicinity. “But where can I go buy art from Rocky if he doesn’t go to the outdoor shows? We need more galleries.”
He also hopes arts journalism will expand and continue building upon what writers like Lennie Bennett, Charles Benbow, Mary Anne Marger, Joanne Milani and Megan Voeller offered locally for many years: critical reviews and timely information. “We need to have coverage of the arts in newspapers,” he said. “We need that kind of support again. It’s undervalued and it will only be valued if we become aware of it.
“We need to make the world around us, outside of the Tampa Bay area, aware of what’s going on here. It’s an energy that I think is just phenomenal.”
“Planting Seeds” is the third in duPont REGISTRY Tampa Bay’s series “How Did We Get Here?” by writer Mitzi Gordon and photographer Tom Kramer, who are charting the Bay area’s creative renaissance by meeting with transformative and inspiring arts leaders whose perspectives shed light on how the region shifted from sleepy suburbs to thriving cultural hub in just a few decades. Previous interviewees included theater veterans Rich and Mimi Rice, photographer Herb Snitzer and painter Carol Dameron.