Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

Museum offers a place to hang art and hang out

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Phillip Ratner, artist and co-founder of the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum in Bethesda, works in his studio at the museum, which houses a permanent art collection telling the story of the Bible. Behind him are the original casts of his sculptures on display at Ellis Island in New York. At hand is a newly finished work called ‘‘The Tower of Babel.” Watching a grandchild play with building blocks inspired it.
First-time visitors to the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum in Bethesda often say that after years of driving past the modernistic structure on Old Georgetown Road, curiosity compelled them to pull over and take a look inside.

‘‘They don’t know who we are, but once they step inside they tend to be repeat visitors,” said artist and co-founder Phillip Ratner, 69, of Bethesda.

A landscaped garden and fanciful steel archway lead visitors into a three-story museum and art gallery built for $2.5 million in 2001 by Ratner and his cousin Dennis Ratner, 65, the founder and chairman of the Hair Cuttery salon chain.

‘‘The idea was to leave a major gift to the community, one that was built without taking a cent from the county,” Phillip Ratner said. ‘‘It’s fully endowed. When Dennis and I are not here to run it, our children will keep it going.”

A permanent exhibit of 100 sculptures by Ratner that tell the story of the Bible fill a second-story gallery, while the first floor is dedicated to visiting art exhibits that change monthly. All exhibits are free and open to the public.

‘‘To have an active museum, you need a permanent collection balanced by a constantly changing exhibit,” he said. ‘‘We’ve achieved that here. We’re very selective about what we show, and now on any given Sunday we have hundreds of visitors dropping by.”

One art group to make the cut is Potomac Artists in Touch, or PAinT. The Potomac-based art group will exhibit about 30 pieces in a show called ‘‘Color and Beyond” that runs Feb. 1-26 at the museum located at 10001 Old Georgetown Road.

‘‘The Ratner [Museum] is getting known for the quality of its shows. Exhibiting here is a far cry from a church show [that combines] artists and crafters,” said Nancy Nesvet, one of nine PAinT artists in the show. ‘‘This place is built for art — the lighting, the wall space, the [traffic] flow, is wonderful.”

Ratner — an internationally known artist with sculptures on display at Ellis Island, the Statute of Liberty, the White House and Supreme Court to name just a few locales — is all about promoting local artists, he said.

‘‘My own life’s been incredibly blessed and I know how hard it is to be exhibited. About two and a half years ago, we decided to bring in a new show each month,” he said. ‘‘This is not a huge building, but it’s beautifully designed for maximum wall space.”

And it’s equally comfortable for art lovers.

‘‘Kids are welcomed here,” he said. ‘‘People drop by to see what’s on, see a friend and end up chatting for an hour and a half.”

The PAinT show takes every advantage of the space, with some 30 pieces being hung for the show. The art ranges from landscapes to less traditional pieces like the illuminated boxes Nesvet uses to highlight her photography. Prices range from around $250 into the thousands.

‘‘It’s not difficult to find space to exhibit, per se,” said Nesvet, of Bethesda. ‘‘But it is hard to get the public to accept experimental art and to pay the prices the pieces merit. A lot of blood, sweat and tears go into it.”

‘‘People are generally conservative,” agreed fellow PAinT artist Felisa Federman, of Potomac, who is showing abstract paintings inspired by nature. ‘‘That’s why exhibiting in a proper venue like [the museum] is so important. It shows people that art can be an important part of everyday life.”

The museum also focuses on bringing art out into the community. Two art teachers on the staff travel around the county, bringing art lessons to senior centers, shelters and schools for emotionally or physically disabled students.

An art teacher himself for 23 years in Washington, D.C., Ratner built classrooms for children into a barn behind the museum. Known as the Carriage House Gallery, it features his fanciful sculptures of beloved characters from children’s literature and Dr. Seuss-like creatures.

‘‘Kids don’t come in and just copy the figures,” he said. ‘‘We use them to spark creativity in young artists.”

Ratner spends much of his time upstairs in his meticulously organized studio working the few commissions he accepts each year. He models sculptures in his studio and then casts them in bronze at foundries off site. He is currently working on a life-size figure of the poet Dante for Yale University.

The Bible is an endless source of inspiration, he said.

He helped found the Israel Bible Museum in Safed, Israel, and Dennis Ratner serves as its president.

‘‘Nobody does Bible art, but it’s been my passion. It’s an endless source of amazing stories, amazing characters,” he said.

Running his hand across a recently completed model of the legendary Tower of Babel — complete with nattering lips — Ratner smiled.

‘‘It’s been a magical life for Dennis and me,” he said. ‘‘This museum, it’s our way of saying thanks.”

If you go

The Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum, 10001 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda, exhibits a permanent art collection that tells the story of the Bible and features art exhibits by local artists that change monthly. The museum is free and open from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sundays.

Tours and art classes for children are available. Go to or call Stella Bernstein, museum director, at 301-897-1518.

An exhibit of 30 pieces by nine artists from Potomac Artists in Touch, or PAinT, runs Feb. 1-26. An opening reception for the show called ‘‘Color and Beyond” will be held 1-3 p.m. Sunday. The show includes work by artists Judith Bourzutschky, Karin Colton, Felisa Federman, Claire Howard, Mary Moltz, Nancy Nesvet, Yolanda Prinsloo, Bess Rodriguez and Martha Spak.