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Explore the benefits of a local art museum membership

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 or (727) 893-8293.

The Dali Museum

1 Dali Blvd., St. Petersburg, (727) 823-3767 or

Individual $60, family $90

The Dalí Museum houses the most comprehensive collection of work by Spanish artist Salvador Dalí, including almost 100 paintings that span his life. He Is generally labeled a Surrealist, but through his long career he worked in many styles. The dramatic architecture of the museum has become almost as big a draw as the art.

Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

255 Beach Drive NE,(727) 896-2667 or

Individual $60, family $125

The museum is the only comprehensive one in the region, with works from antiquities to contemporary art, which means it has something for everyone. The permanent collection is housed in the original building, an elegant Palladian structure on the downtown waterfront. Highly trained docents offer tours daily and usually can accommodate a special area or interest you might have.

Tampa Museum of Art

120 W Gasparilla Plaza, (813)274-8130 or

Individual $50, family $80

The museum's art occupies a gleaming new building downtown on the Hillsborough River that sits next to a magnificent swath of city park. The museum doesn't have a large permanent collection but its star is its antiquities, among the best in the southeastern United States. It has established a focus on art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

200 N Tampa St., Tampa,(813) 221-2222 or

Individual $45, family $85

This little museum, tucked into the corner of an office building in downtown Tampa, resembles a gallery, but it is a serious museum. It doesn't have a significant permanent collection, so you'll find changing exhibitions of photography that explore the medium's history and development and feature some of its biggest names through the decades.

Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art

600 Klosterman Road, Tarpon Springs,(727) 712-5762 or

Individual $35, family $65

The museum was founded in 2002 when St. Petersburg College received a significant group of works by modernist artist Abraham Rattner from his stepson and widow. The career-spanning collection spreads through several of the museum's permanent galleries, which have been rearranged to display the museum's growing collection of paintings and prints by other artists.

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, (941) 359-5700 or

Individual $75, family $100

John Ringling's grand vision for a major museum was tied to his ambitions to develop Sarasota. The development went bust but the museum flourishes as a state tourist attraction. The grounds and galleries emulate the great Italian palazzos Ringling and his wife, Mable, visited, and they're packed with equally grand and familiar names such as Titian, El Greco, Rubens and Velázquez. The museum also includes the flamboyant 1920s home of the Ringlings and the circus museum.

USF Contemporary Art Museum

4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, (813) 974-2849 or

It does not offer memberships and does not charge admission.

The Contemporary Art Museum has a mission as a university museum so it routinely has shows by the faculty and students in USF's College of Fine Arts. The museum's exhibition schedule is also built around bringing first-rate contemporary art to its galleries as both a university and community resource.

Explore the benefits of a local art museum membership 12/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 12, 2011 11:01am]
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