The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg has quietly become one of the major repositories of photography in the southeastern United States.
Two gifts in 2009 and 2010 rocketed its holdings from about 1,500 to more than 14,000 images that cover almost all known photographic methods beginning with daguerreotypes and salt prints from the mid 19th century to gelatin silver prints of the mid 20th century. The great names of the medium during that time are represented, including Mathew Brady, Nadar, Étienne Carjat, Alfred Stieglitz, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Aaron Siskind. But there are also obscure individuals who, through their work, help trace the history of a medium less than 200 years old.
Museum officials declined to attach a value to the two gifts, but here's some context: Atlanta's High Museum has what is considered an excellent collection of about 4,000 prints. The New Orleans Museum of Art, also with an excellent collection, has about 7,000 images. Numbers are important, but quality and comprehensiveness are just as significant, and this new collection at MFA certainly has both.
The gifts will be celebrated over the next several years with a number of exhibitions. The first opens Feb. 19 and will continue through June 12 in the second floor gallery reserved for works on paper in the museum's Hazel Hough Wing.
Still, it will take decades to put most of the works on display. So as with many museums with large collections that cannot be displayed in their entirety (the Getty Museum in California has 2 million photographic prints), this one will have further value as a study collection, one that academics can visit in the museum's archives and use for research.
The donors are two couples. Dr. Robert and Chitranee Drapkin are distinguished collectors who have given hundreds of photographs and other art to the museum over several decades. This is the first gift from Bruce and Ludmila Dandrew, who recently moved to the area and are close friends with the Drapkins. The gifts will be known as the Dandrew-Drapkin Collection.
The museum's collection began in the early 1970s when many museums didn't consider photography a fine art that belonged in a serious museum. Alan DuBois was a prescient assistant director at the MFA with a personal love for the medium who inaugurated the program with works by prominent photographers such as Edward Steichen, Minor White and Ansel Adams. Adams, impressed with DuBois' efforts, donated more works to the collection. Since then, others, including the Drapkins, have come forward to strengthen it. It was always considered a very nice collection. Now, it can qualify as important.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.