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Art's magnificent seven, and then some

I could have made a case for any of the top seven shows on the list below to have been in first place.

If I'd picked the most profound show, I'd have put the Joseph Beuys exhibit at the Ringling or American Surrealism at the Dali in front.

If I'd gone with the most stirring show, it would have been "Witness & Legacy" at the Holocaust Museum or Cuban exile art at the Tampa Museum of Art and the Dali.

If I'd judged on beauty first, I'd have selected French Impressionism at the Museum of Fine Arts or art of Peru at the Florida International Museum.

Instead, I went with a modest show that balanced all three qualities, an exhibit on women's issues at the Dunedin Fine Art Center. It headed my list from the moment I saw it. The others shifted position right up to deadline.

The fact that the stark and esoteric work of Joseph Beuys can be considered on the same level as the richly visual paintings of the French Impressionists is proof that art cannot be judged by a single set of standards.

No outdoor shows made the list this year, though the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts in Tampa was especially commendable for presenting ethnic diversity, and was one of our best chances to see developing talent as well as to buy art. Here is my list of the bay area's top shows:

1. OBJECTS OF PERSONAL SIGNIFICANCE, Dunedin Fine Art Center, June-August. A contemporary show by 28 women, curated by Janet Marquardt-Cherry of Eastern Illinois University, was a triple treat: engrossing, enriching and enjoyable. The works were layered with symbols, historical references and original presentation. More important, it was our best chance to experience art of our time beyond the state line. Its sole drawback was its lack of a local curator (though Marquardt-Cherry briefly chaired USF's visual arts department).

2. JOSEPH BEUYS MULTIPLES, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, October-December. A giant of 20th century art was evaluated through his editionable art, as well as through generous evidence of his activism, in a show from the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. This difficult work was exhibited especially well. The Ringling described the show as "heralding a curatorial focus on contemporary art that will continue through "Y2K.' "

3. TREASURES FROM THE PETIT PALAIS, GENEVA, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, March-June. Art from France by way of a Swiss museum presented joyous expressions of art from Impressionism and beyond. While minor works by masters (Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec) were present, the better works were by artists of lesser fame. The show's value was its insight into the history of modern art from the place where it began.

4. BREAKING BARRIERS: CONTEMPORARY CUBAN ART, Tampa Museum of Art and Salvador Dali Museum, September-November. Cubans in exile covered a broad time period, as well as a range of intensity, knocking down not only barriers of a closed society, but the stereotyped ways we may think about it. Curated by Tampa Museum of Art director Emily Kass from the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art's holdings, it conveyed a sense of the contributions of Florida's Cuban art community.

5. WITNESS & LEGACY: CONTEMPORARY ART ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST, Tampa Bay Holocaust Memorial Museum and Educational Center, St. Petersburg, September-December. This powerful, moving exhibit presented as many expressions on the Holocaust as there were artists exhibiting. Each of several major installations could have stood alone as a worthwhile one-person show.

6. EMPIRES OF MYSTERY: THE INCAS, THE ANDES AND LOST CIVILIZATIONS, Florida International Museum, St. Petersburg, October through spring 1999. Artifacts are arty fun. The exhibition hall took a marketing lesson from the Titanic show's success and installed Peru's ancient treasures in an Indiana Jones-inspired jungle.

7. SURREALISM IN AMERICA DURING THE 1930S AND 1940S: SELECTIONS FROM THE PENNY AND ELTON YASUNA COLLECTION, Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, November through Feb. 14, 1999. A substantive show provides opportunity for understanding the evolution, position and influence of surrealism in the United States. There's plenty to learn here, not just by looking, but by reading text panels, brochures and the catalog.

8. (RE)MEDIATION: THE DIGITAL IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN PRINTMAKING, University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, August-October. If names like David Humphrey, Alfredo Jaar, Michael Rees and Diana Thater mean nothing to you, it's because cutting-edge artists of renown exhibit in the bay area too rarely. The year's best was USF's show on artists investigating the digital computer. Extra credit to USF, which organized the show for a biennial in Slovenia, and a year later updated works in a rapidly changing technology for us.

9. UnderCURRENT/overVIEW2, Tampa Museum of Art, June-August. The Tampa museum's second presentation of top area artists was at least as good as its first, introducing us to new talents while updating us on some of our most established names.

10. ART FESTIVAL BETH-EL, Temple Beth-El, St. Petersburg, January. The synagogue fund-raiser remains the best place for serious buyers, who may choose from a changing array of artworks from throughout the United States, tightly screened for quality and value.