Boca's cultural ambassador turns 70: Art museum showcases growth, diversity during anniversary

‘Marty’s Cube’ by sculptor Tony Rosenthal is in the entrance courtyard of Boca Raton Museum of Art at Mizner Park.


By Gretel Sarmiento

Dressed up in two trendy exhibitions, Boca Raton Museum of Art kicked off its 70th birthday party last month with the sound of music, pink balloons and improvisational dances.
And that was just the first week. Like a proper septuagenarian housing a young soul, the institution has no intention of slowing its pace — and dance moves — anytime soon.
“When the board of trustees and staff are in sync and there is a clear perspective of where you want to go, great things can happen,” said Director Irvin Lippman, who has led the museum since 2014. “Whether you are a 150-year-old institution or a 70-year-old institution, it really is just a matter of whether you are all rowing together.”
This must be the Olympic rowing team. The museum that sprouted out of Palmetto Park Road with two studio classrooms seven decades ago today enjoys 44,000 square feet of gallery space and welcomes more than 100,000 annual visitors to its Mizner Park location.
A smaller number attended Art & Community Day, the first in a series of events launching the new season, which includes the customary rich schedule of permanent and traveling exhibitions, lectures, tours and art classes. Museum staff greeted visitors and recorded their testimonials during the rainy daylong celebration in early November, at which fall exhibitions exploring nature and climate change were unveiled.
An anniversary gala dinner and dance is planned for Jan. 25 and will include a live auction, gift drawing and a raffle to support the museum’s programming.

The museum’s former location on Palmetto Park Road is home to its school of art.

The former location as seen in a 1964 clipping from The Boca Raton News. Photos provided by Boca Raton Museum of Art

At the debut event, a spontaneous dance by the FAU Repertory Dance Theatre Ensemble broke out within Tree of Knowledge. That’s the title of a dynamic, site-specific installation inspired by Pearl City, the historic African-American community across the street from the museum that is home to a commanding 100-year-old banyan tree.
From July through October, more than 350 volunteers twisted thousands of recycled newspapers now hanging like paper branches from the ceiling of the main gallery. The mastermind behind this handmade rainforest is sculptor and performance artist Maren Hassinger, who saw the natural landmark as a symbol of community, endurance and collaboration. This is the largest production of her career.
The California-born artist’s companion piece to Tree of Knowledge puts nature’s No. 1 enemy to good use with recycled plastic bags that adorn the gallery entrance hall. Incidentally, it looks like a party decorated with pink balloons. The shopping bags are inflated with human breath and carry love notes inside.
Love sends out an optimistic signal that echoes in the rest of the first floor. Clifford Ross: Waves responds.

Long before Greta Thunberg and the Paris Agreement issued their respective warnings about rising sea levels and global warming, there was Ross with a camera, a tether linking him to his assistant to keep him from floating away. The New York-born Ross, who abstains from cautious photography, spent years capturing waves up close during extreme weather conditions and while braving the ocean surf.
The fruit of his labor dances between abstraction and hyper-realism, aggression and gentleness. One look at the ferocity of the Wood Wave series and it’s clear nobody should try this at home.
The massive scale of these water columns amplifies the feeling of powerlessness. The choice of wood as printing surface adds foreign marks to pictures that already feel untamed, unpredictable. These are waves on steroids, and all we can do is stand in awe.
Their range of mood swings can be better appreciated in the adjacent gallery room housing a set of nine prints from 2009 collectively known as the Hurricane series.

Members of FAU’s Repertory Dance Theatre Ensemble perform during festivities marking the 70th anniversary of Boca Raton Museum of Art. An anniversary gala dinner and dance is planned for Jan. 25. Photo provided by Boca Raton Museum of Art

Helping art students
The two shows, running through March 1, will extend the museum’s birthday festivities well into the new year. They are the natural next steps in a succession of transformative evolutions that can be traced to the 1940s, when a modest exhibition organized by members of the Library Association hinted at the local artistic potential and interest in the fine arts.
This first civic group, united under the mission of opening a small library, fueled the creation of the Art Guild of Boca Raton in 1950, which eventually became the Boca Raton Museum. The city’s official cultural attaché has been fostering cultural exchanges between the local community and the rest of the world ever since.
The art school, situated in the museum’s original location, now offers more than 100 classes and its eight classrooms see nearly 3,000 students every year. The Artists Guild, as it’s currently known, is still active in a supporting capacity.
Boca Raton resident Farida Morris joined it last year at a particularly vulnerable time while she questioned whether or not to pursue her artistic career. She took a portrait painting class and attended art critique evening sessions where members bring artworks and receive group feedback.
Then something happened.
“I participated in the Artists Guild’s juried exhibit at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale and received juror recognition for my digital photograph The Dress,” said Morris, whose membership includes signature-members-only exhibitions. “I think, overall, I got more knowledge and confidence as a developing artist by participating.”

Using technology
One of the biggest challenges cultural institutions face is the ongoing negotiation aimed at growing their fan base without alienating longtime museum-goers. Striking that balance is not only tricky, but essential. Boosting membership and support is crucial to a healthy financial state and gives a sound indication of community engagement.
Sandwiched between the Norton Museum of Art to the north and NSU Art Museum to the south, Boca Raton Museum seems particularly good at gauging the pros and cons of interactive exhibitions that trigger all the senses rather than the conventional flat experience. Admittedly, it’s a work in progress.
“The museum is a place where I can go to refresh my creativity, see different art media and just enjoy being around art, some of which I love and some of which I don’t,” said Marcia Lamel, a longtime museum member and current president of the Artists Guild.
Lamel joined the museum soon after moving to Boca Raton in 2002 and discovering it in a small space on Palmetto Park Road.
“I wasn’t very impressed, but I have been an artist all my life, so joining and supporting museums is important to me,” she said. “I have really enjoyed the museum’s exhibitions in the last few years. They are different and many are exciting.”
Technology has certainly helped captivate a more social media-oriented segment of the population with a fleeting attention span. Traditionalists might opine that the “pure” viewing experience has been sacrificed in favor of trendy things that should have no place in galleries (such as selfie sticks or cafés). Boca Raton Museum, on the other hand, has found a partner in technology.
Most recently, it acquired Ross’ Light Waves III installation consisting of an LED wall that plays six minutes of computer-generated footage. It’s stunning and sleek at once.
“We are ever vigilant that art is a form of communication. It is true that most visitors might spend only a few seconds in front of any work of art and take longer to photograph themselves,” said Lippman. “At least we are able to get visitors to realize that there is great joy in first ‘looking up’ rather than ‘looking down’ at one’s cellphone.”

Encouraging dialogue
Whereas older and larger institutions collect broadly and in depth, the Boca museum’s collections (mainly representative of 20th- and 21st-century art) are anchored on the principle of communication. This type of dialogue, epitomized by Jean Dubuffet’s paintings and African sculptures in the second-floor gallery, is one in which the museum takes pride and is not interested in trading. If anything, the latest round of capital improvements, which will include the expansion of retail space and the addition of a café next to the lobby, will reinforce this core value.
Upcoming exhibitions Phyllis Galembo: Maské and Eye to I: Self Portraits From the National Portrait Gallery, opening Jan. 28 and March 24, respectively, will further advance the conversation between past and modern art.
“It is great that there are museums that can present the visual history of civilizations,” said Lippman. “It is also important to have museums devoted to the art of our time.” 

If you go
What: Boca Raton
Museum of Art
Where: 501 Plaza Real
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Mondays and holidays.
Admission: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, free for children 12 and under and members.
Info: www.bocamuseum.org

Social media numbers
• The Boca museum joined Twitter in 2009, has 6,629 followers.
• It joined Facebook in 2010, has 13,599 followers.
• It joined Instagram in 2013, has 4,611 followers.

Also celebrating in 2020
• Norton Museum of Art turns 79.
• The NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale turns 62.
• Henry Morrison Flagler Museum turns 60.

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