Monday, June 18, 2018

Fond farewell: Lennie Bennett retires as Times art critic after 14 years

Lennie Bennett has been known to walk around the newsroom toting hefty art books, despite her diminutive frame. The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. Art in Vienna. Dalí.

In explaining an upcoming exhibition, breaking down its significance for art connoisseurs and casual readers alike, she'd flip to a relevant page and walk you through it. Lennie never talked down to you, although she rightfully could have, but always left you feeling more learned and inspired.

Lennie has been the Tampa Bay Times' art critic — art educator, really — for 14 years. Now, her career winds to a stopping point as she retires.

"I have loved becoming friends with museum staff and gallery owners during my time as the Times art critic," Lennie said. "And having dialogues with you, our readers. We agreed or disagreed and I learned much from you."

You recognize Lennie from Things to Do offerings and the Weekend section with her Art Planner and outings, from the annual Mainsail Arts Festival in St. Petersburg to temporary exhibitions like the Norma Kamali fashion exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art. You've seen her deeper, more explorative work in our Latitudes section on Sundays and in metro and front page stories for the Times.

Lennie is a true local. She was born in St. Petersburg and has lived here for 65 years, with a short getaway for college. She came to the Times as a correspondent in the 1990s, covering the St. Petersburg social scene. She told readers of the lost art of afternoon tea, parties at the St. Petersburg Woman's Club and yachting fundraisers.

She joined the features staff in 2002 as art critic and since has defined the beat with a level of sophistication and expertise few could achieve.

Just this year, she distinguished herself by reporting on new museums coming to St. Petersburg in 2017, including the $70 million Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement and the $55 million Tom and Mary James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. She deftly reported on the opening of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art's Center for Asian Art, reviewing both the works and the building itself, and explaining some complicated legal wrangling surrounding it all in the process.

She has reviewed shows at the Dalí Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, the Tampa Museum of Art and more. But she also found time to appreciate smaller exhibitions in galleries and things like Tampa Bay's exploding mural scene.

She knew which museum directors were coming and going before anyone else. And she turned up interesting characters in the art world. Her interviews of late have spanned from internationally famous Spanish sculptural artist Jaume Plensa to Ruby Bridges, the subject of Norman Rockwell's 1963 painting The Problem We All Live With, of a black child being escorted to a white school.

In 2015, Lennie memorably wrote about the embattled St. Petersburg Pier, a mainstay she remembered from childhood as "old, dark and kind of smelly," but full of good things like ice cream and a local TV station. As art critic, she commented on the importance of continually respecting our landmarks, even when it's not fashionable or particularly nostalgic.

"We will only get what we deserve," she wrote. "A good part of public entitlement rests on a commitment to support our choice with an understanding that this is a public space, owned by us and requiring of us appreciation, engagement and responsibility."

Lennie now gets a deserved break. As we figure out how to cover the arts in Tampa Bay going forward, which we remain committed to doing, we will likely see Lennie's work in our pages from time to time. Keep your eyes out for her review of the upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Dalí.

She'll relish spending time with her grandchildren. And, no doubt, teaching them about the beauty around them, just as she did for us.

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