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The Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art reinvents its space and its collection

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The Leepa-Rattner Mus- eum of Art has grown a lot since opening in January 2002. It still occupies its same footprint but what is bigger is its permanent collection. Its new configuration of its 3,400 square feet of permanent collection galleries reflects that growth.

A visit will hold many surprises even for those familiar with the museum, which looks fresh as paint and, in fact, has been freshened up with 205 gallons of it, most in new wall colors.

Ten years ago when it debuted on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College, the collection's core was more than 1,000 works — paintings, drawings, prints and related materials — by Abraham Rattner, who knew and was known by some of the most influential artists of the early and mid 20th century. Works by some of them were also collected by Rattner. They were donated by artist Allen Leepa, Rattner's stepson, who also gave works by himself and his mother and Rattner's second wife, Esther Gentle. The group totaled about 2,000.

Lynn Whitelaw was responsible for the initial installation that approached the art mostly historically and chronologically. Whitelaw, 63, was the museum's founding director (and often its curator) and held that post until last year when he requested and received permission to become its first full-time curator because, after a long and distinguished career as an administrator, he wanted to concentrate on his first love, the art itself.

So he is also responsible for this new iteration.

"When we opened, our mission was to take this wonderful collection by Abraham Rattner and put it in the context of 20th century art," he said. "But 10 years of collecting has provided a lot of different focuses. More than 1,200 pieces have come to the museum (by other artists). We never expected that and it changed our mission."

To better represent the museum's holdings, Whitelaw has made dramatic changes in the eight galleries housing the permanent collection. (There are two more for special exhibitions.) For years, five of the eight held works by Rattner; the other three displayed those by Leepa and Gentle as well as works owned by Rattner that were created by his more famous contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso. Now only two galleries hold the choicest Rattner works, and Leepa and Gentle share a third gallery. The remaining five are an eclectic mix reflecting the current diversity.

"The game-changer for us was the Gulf Coast Museum," Whitelaw said.

That Largo museum closed in 2009 and its collection of 450 works, mostly by Florida artists, was taken over by St. Petersburg College. About half of them have been assigned to Leepa-Rattner's collection, and the rest are owned by the college's foundation and will be displayed at its various campuses.

"We wanted to honor that collection, to exhibit it, not keep it in storage," Whitelaw said.

So he has culled paintings, prints and ceramics from it and arranged them thematically in more galleries: landscapes, studio glass and artist as educator.

The final gallery is dedicated to works on paper since the museum has also been given several collections of 20th century prints over the years.

The lobby's soaring ceiling can accommodate several large-scale paintings and sculptures, too.

With about two-thirds of the permanent collection space given over to other artists, is the museum's name still relevant?

"The name will probably change someday," Whitelaw said. "But it has become well-known, like a brand. Maybe when we expand our space, but now's not the time. For now the name honors the nucleus collection and the donor."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

>>IF YOU GO

The Leepa-Rattner Museum

The museum is at 600 Klosterman Road, on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, and

1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 adults, $4 seniors, and free to military and their families, children and students with ID. Voluntary donation on Sunday with free docent tours at 2 p.m. (727) 712-5762 or spcollege.edu/central/museum.

Here are some details of the new arrangements in the permanent collection galleries at the

Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art:

Abraham Rattner

Rattner was born in the United States but spent much of his adult life in Paris which, until the late 1940s, was the epicenter of the Western art world. He developed as an artist there and a sunny yellow gallery traces his growth, his portraits and paintings reflecting a recurring theme of suffering as central to the human condition. His "tragic" paintings continue into a pale blue gallery that focuses on his spirituality and interpretations of Biblical themes.

Esther Gentle

and Allen Leepa

Works by Rattner's second wife and her son, who donated the collection and more than $2 million to found the museum, share space and play off each other: Gentle's whimsical sculptures from reclaimed materials, such as Don Quixote in the foreground, are good foils for Allen Leepa's abstract paintings, such as Tondo, shown.

Gulf Coast Museum Collection

The Gulf Coast Museum of Art began as the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center in Belleair in 1949 before relocating to Largo in 1999, a move that probably contributed to its demise. In its former guise as an arts center, it didn't have a central directive to collect, so most works were acquired beginning in the 1990s. But one of its treasures is an 1893 painting by George Inness Sr. given in 1956 that was the launching point for Lynn Whitelaw's gallery of landscapes that has abstracts by William Pachner and Syd Solomon as well as a black-and-white, large-scale Clyde Butcher photograph. In the lobby, large-scale works, including Ron Koehler's wall sculpture, 100% Natural Bristle Brushes, introduce visitors to its expanded collection and mission.

Works on paper

Two walls function as a passageway and small gallery defined by (rather glaring) purple paint. It will primarily exhibit prints from the museum's growing collection. Now, it features six screen prints created by Berghoff-Cowden editions in the early '90s.

Studio glass

The Works on Paper gallery opens into another gallery, seen in the background, where generous space has been allotted for art glass. An impetus for curator Whitelaw in refocusing the galleries was the opportunity to have an ongoing exploration of fine crafts that have been the subject of temporary shows based on past loans. A nice group of contemporary studio glass was part of the Gulf Coast Museum collection and joins a few pieces owned by the Leepa-Rattner Museum. Dale Chihuly is the big name but his small Persian vessel sets aren't the most interesting pieces here.

Artist as educator/educator as artist

Many of the most well-known Florida artists from the 1960s to the present have been teachers and professors at the state's numerous colleges and universities. They influenced generations of younger artists through their work and their teaching. It's a checklist of top names beginning with Hiram Williams of the University of Florida faculty, and including Bruce Marsh, Mernet Larsen, Theo Wujcik, Robert Hodgell and Leslie Lerner.

Lennie Bennett

The Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art reinvents its space and its collection 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 3:30am]

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