In last Sunday's Latitudes, I wrote about the pleasures of giving your time as a holiday gift, sharing a visit to art galleries as a meaningful experience.
I suggested galleries as a good entry point because they're small. In retail parlance, you could think of them in relationship to museums as boutiques compared to department stores.
But I'm a passionate advocate of museum exploration, too. And I can't think of a more fulfilling way to spend several hours than in a museum, especially a museum I think I know well. I always find something new to see, think and talk about.
The west-central coastal region of Florida is flush with art museums. We have seven that spread from Sarasota through Pinellas County and into north Tampa. Even better, each museum has a unique focus. The accompanying list gives you an idea of the breadth.
Most of us visit a museum only when it has a special exhibition that interests us, which is great because we might never have another chance to see that art again. We tend to take a permanent collection for granted; it's always around.
I ask that you reconsider that thinking and give regular visits to a museum a go. I also suggest you join a museum; after just a few visits, it will pay for itself. Each museum structures its memberships differently in price and what you get for the money.
The common benefit with all of them at every level is unlimited access. At the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, for example, an individual membership is $60 annually. One adult admission ticket is $21.
See what I mean?
The museum, with its superb collection of paintings by Salvador Dalí housed in a dramatic building, probably provides the most obvious enticement for joining and making repeat visits because it's still so new, opened less than a year ago.
But there is plenty of drama to be found at the venerable John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, too, where you'll find one of the finest collections of Baroque art in the United States, lovingly assembled by circus entrepreneur John Ringling in the 1920s, then given to the state as a gift when he died in 1936.
The museum complex now includes the art facility; Ringling's historic restored mansion, Ca d'Zan; and a marvelous circus museum, all in a 66-acre park on Sarasota Bay. For a base membership of $75, you essentially get into three museums for the price of one. And you can, without any effort, make a full day of visiting the Ringling complex.
That brings me to another benefit some museums offer to all members: discounts in their gift shops and, if they have them, on-site restaurants. The Ringling and the Tampa Museum of Art provide both. The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg doesn't offer a discounted meal at its cafe, but you do get a 10 percent break in its shop. And all of these shops, as well as that of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, have some wonderful items you won't find in a mall.
If you travel a lot and enjoy seeing museums in other cities, most of our museums offer an option to be part of the North American Reciprocal Museums program, which gives you free access to more than 400 museums (not just art museums) throughout the United States. But NARM isn't cheap. Some museums, such as the Dalí, allow you to add an additional amount to your regular membership ($45), while others, such as the Ringling, include it in a more expensive membership (beginning at the Contributor level for $175).
Among area museums, two do not have permanent collections on daily view. The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts only has changing exhibitions. It has never had the funds to build a collection of its own nor a permanent facility to maintain and display it.
The University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum doesn't devote ongoing gallery space to its extensive permanent collection, mostly made up of very fine prints, and instead uses its space for changing shows. Its leaders have long wanted to expand its footprint to allow for permanent galleries but those plans seem to be on hold. As a university museum, it doesn't have members and is the only one without an admission fee or suggested donation.
Becoming a museum member is a gift to a museum as well. The basic memberships usually provide little, if any, money but they increase a museum's list of supporters, and often grants are tied to the number of donors rather than the amounts. And all museum staffs love seeing people in their facilities, especially regulars.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.