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Gift of art in Tarpon Springs brings acclaim to the donor

(ran in PS edition)

Allen Leepa, an artist and teacher, thought it only proper to donate his artwork and that of his stepfather, Abraham Rattner, to an institution of higher learning.

He never expected his gift to St. Petersburg Junior College to be mentioned in Newsweek as one of the most significant donations of 1996.

He never expected that he would one day see his name on the marquee of a fine arts education center and museum at the college's Tarpon Springs campus.

And he certainly never thought the school and the city of Tarpon Springs would proclaim a day in his honor.

But all have either happened or are in the works.

The Tarpon Springs City Commission declared today Dr. Allen Leepa Day in honor of the artist and author who has taught at the Chicago Art Institute, Brooklyn Art Center, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Michigan State University. Leepa and his wife, Isabelle, live in Tarpon Springs.

This comes three days after state legislators approved $2-million in matching funds to help the SPJC Foundation build on the Tarpon campus a 28,000-square-foot art education complex that will be attached to a 5,000-square-foot Leepa-Rattner Museum of Fine Arts.

"As a teacher, I've been concerned with the educational function of art, trying to explain to students what to look for in abstract art," said Leepa. "I could think of no better place to deposit this collection than on an educational campus.

"It's not just a place to deposit art. It's a place to bring art alive."

But college officials announced this week that the Leepa-Rattner collection is so much larger than originally estimated that they also are scouting for another place to display the art.

SPJC may build another museum in south Pinellas County or take advantage of available space in existing museums in St. Petersburg.

School officials originally expected about 150 pieces of art. The collection has swelled to about 6,000 pieces, including tapestries, stained glass, sculptures and oil paintings, which are stored at the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg for now, said Janice Buchanan, director of development for SPJC's foundation.

Creating another museum will split the collection, but that does not bother Leepa. He said he is happy that residents throughout Pinellas County will be able to see the artwork.

Nick Billiris, provost of the Tarpon Springs campus, said that having enough artwork for more than one museum means the showcases can exchange pieces.

"This way, if they're out showing, you can rotate them easily," he said. "That keeps it alive and fresh."

In addition to the finished pieces of art, the collection includes rough-draft sketches, paint brushes and wicker baskets that held art supplies.

"There is enough art that it would be a shame to not have enough places to display it," Buchanan said. "When we have sketches leading up to oil paintings or letters describing what he was thinking, things that are tangential to a piece of art, because we are an educational institution it would mean a lot to us to be able to display them."

The museum on the Tarpon Springs campus will be built with a $500,000 donation from the Leepas and will be supported by a $1.5-million endowment also donated by the couple. Architect Ed Hoffman Jr. will design the museum and art education center.

If a second museum is built, the school will have to find a way to pay for it, Buchanan said.

Half of the Tarpon Springs campus museum will be reserved for works from the Leepa-Rattner collection, which includes pieces by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst as well as sculptures created by Leepa's mother, Esther Gentle Rattner. The rest of the space will feature traveling exhibits, Buchanan said.

The art education center will house the college's new museum studies program, including space for conservation and restoration courses. The University of South Florida wants to work with SPJC on that program.

The Tarpon Springs campus used to offer some art classes, Billiris said. But the demand for science space was greater, so in the early 1980s, the art rooms became science labs, he said.

Billiris expects the museum and art education center to attract not only SPJC students but local elementary and high school students as well.

Even before the buildings are complete, SPJC may take some of the art on the road to give the community a sneak preview, he said.

"It's just an opportunity to move the cultural level of the community up another notch," he said.