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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.