It’s been a long time since I wrote about an art exhibit as part of one of my periodic theater reports. (I think the last one was on Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2012.) The fact is that I hadn’t seen many shows in that time and none worth writing about. Then last winter, my mother moved from the District into Montgomery County, Maryland, and we began to see notices occasionally for visits her new apartment building was arranging to a nearby art museum, the Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum. I recognized the name because it came up when I did a little research into “The Mushroom House” in neighboring Glen Echo, about which I wrote for ROT in 2009. (The house’s owners and renovators are associated with the museum.) What I didn’t realize until Mother was more settled in and we began driving around the area to run regular errands was that the Ratner is right up the street from her new residence: both places are on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. The museum, 10001 Old Georgetown Road (at the corner of Lone Oak Drive, which is actually where the entrance is), is a half mile north of Maplewood Park Place, where Mom lives now. (It’s walking distance, but, leaving aside my mother’s age, walking along OGR is inadvisable because the sidewalks are intermittent and the road’s very heavily trafficked.)
Mother had been recovering from a medical procedure in June and was constrained to take it easy for a while and stick close to home, increasing her cruising range little by little. After about a week of staying within her building, participating in the various activities and social events on home turf, she decided to venture a little further out. The Ratner’s not open in Fridays or Saturdays, but when I found that it had hours on Sundays, we decided to make a visit on 23 June to check the place out and we drove up in the late afternoon for a short visit (the museum closes at 4:30 p.m. on Sundays, 4 on weekdays). It turns out to be a pretty small museum, so that was plenty of time.
The Ratner, which charges no admission, is devoted to fostering love of the Old Testament through the graphic arts. (Groups are free, too, but 12 or more require advanced reservations. The museum also has special tours for children and encourages classes with teachers to participate in a “hands-on art project.”) Founded in 2001 by cousins Dennis, a businessman, and Phillip Ratner, an artist, the $2 million, 7,000-square-foot museum is what Bill Broadway (yes, that’s his name—if his byline is to be believed) noted in the Washington Post is the fulfillment of a promise the cousins, who grew up in Northwest D.C. but now live in Bethesda, made each other as teens: if they each became successful in their chosen fields, “they would give something ‘smashing’ to the Washington community.” The museum consists of three buildings of which one is Phillip Ratner’s studio and museum offices, and another is the Resource Center which houses the library, conference space, and the Treasury of Children's Literature & Art. The largest building is the exhibit space, on two levels (with a somewhat pokey elevator for visitors who can’t manage stairs). The Ratner plans to convert some of its property to outdoor exhibition space as well.
Dennis Ratner, now 69, is co-founder and CEO of Ratner Companies, headquartered in Vienna, Virginia. The corporation operates Hair Cuttery, a 1,000-store chain of salons in 14 states and U.K. he started 40 years ago. (He’s also a local philanthropist, especially for causes focusing on children and the Jewish community in the Capital area and nationally.)
Phillip Ratner, 76, is an artist with an international rep whose work can be seen at the Supreme Court, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Zoo, and other locations around the world. At the Statue of Liberty, for instance, the artist has five secular-themed sculptures on display and 40 at Ellis Island. Though the Ratner Museum is substantially devoted to Phillip Ratner’s work—sculptures, drawings, paintings, and graphics—it devotes considerable space to other artists, some of whose art is on permanent exhibit at the museum. (Other exhibits, particularly in the ground floor gallery, feature local artists and change monthly. The works on the ground floor are on non-biblical themes. The main-floor gallery, however, is about to undergo an unspecified “format change” in the fall.) The artist, who studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and American University in Washington, also taught art in the Capital area, including at D.C. high schools, for over 20 years.
According to the Post’s Broadway, the Ratner is something of a rarity: it’s one of very few museums in the world which is dedicated to depicting figures from the Bible. “The Bible is my passion,” said Phillip Ratner. (Aside from the artworks, there are Bibles from around the world and across time in the museum’s collection. The Ratner also offers evening Bible study programs using Phillip Ratner’s art and a “Children's biblical birthday party” which includes the creation of an art project by the birthday child.) The center of the permanent collection is Phillip Ratner’s sculptures depicting various Old Testament stories such as Jonah and the Whale, Noah and the Ark, Jericho, David and Goliath. Other pieces depict Genesis and the Tribes of Israel. Known as Journey Through the Bible, this installation is a permanent exhibit of over 100 of Ratner’s sculptures and 50 wall hangings. Behind Ratner’s sculptures on the second floor are paintings by the artist illustrating the Commandments and tenets of the Kabbalah.
Also on exhibit in the second-floor gallery are biblically-themed works by other artists who are permanent exhibitors at the Ratner, though the pieces on display change regularly. The works are in many media, including painting and drawing but also including tapestry, needlepoint, and other folk-inspired forms. On the Sunday my mother and I drove up, the upstairs gallery was showing Poetic Rhythm (2-30 June), a collection of oils, acrylics, watercolors, mixed media works, and Chinese brush paintings by artists Geraldine Czajkowski (Grasonville, Md.), Claudette Downs (Alexandria, Va.), Freda Lee-McCann (Washington, D.C.), Bertrand Mao (Rockville, Md., via Jiangsu Province, China), Edith Sievers (Bethesda, Md.), Lynn Weiss (Glen Echo, Md.), and Connie Ward Woolard (Silver Spring, Md.)—of none of whom I’d ever heard.
Downstairs, the exhibit was Silk Panels – By Members of Spin – Silk Painters International (2 May-29 July), works by Sande Anderson (Santa Fe, N.M.), Nadia Azumi (Rockville, Md.), Aileen Horn (Bethesda, Md.), Nandy King (St. Kitts), Doris Knape (Whittier, Calif.), Phillippa K. Lack (Cheyenne, Wyo.), Betty Lathrop (Dover, N.H.), Sharon Thomas (Bluffton, S.C.), Anderson Moore (Livermore, Colo.), Kaki Steward (Laguna Beach, Calif.), Don Baker (Dade City, Fla.), displayed in the museum’s Atrium. Also on view in the main gallery are more of Phillip Ratner’s sculptures. These aren’t on biblical subjects, but are devoted to literature: characters out of Shakespeare and Dante.
Phillip Ratner’s sculptures, elongated images reflecting the influence he attributes to Alberto Giacometti and El Greco, are earth-colored clay (Proform, an artificial medium) molded on a frame of welded and shaped steel rods; some pieces are painted with bright colors (Noah’s rainbow, Joseph’s many-colored coat). Each piece stands about three or four feet tall, mounted on pedestals that put them at about eye level. With 100 sculptures, some of which are fairly elaborate scenes, arranged around the perimeter of the moderate-sized gallery, the display gets a little crowded. The art hung behind the sculpted pieces helps form the impression of a jumble of distracting images.
Generally I found the Ratner Museum and its art unprepossessing. The museum is more a curiosity than a treasure, the product of two guys with an obsession who got to see it turned into reality. (The Ratners also have a Bible museum in Israel, the Israel Bible Museum of Be-er Sheva, so this isn’t their first venture into fulfilling their childhood dream.) The changing art on display when Mom and I visited was entirely unimpressive. (I reserve judgment on the Chinese brush paintings of Bertrand Mao because, almost lost among the modern Western art, it didn’t get the exposure that might have made it stand out. It seemed an odd companion to the works of the artists that surrounded it.) It all struck me as uninspired, the kind of work you see at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit here in New York City—little more than tourist art or airport art. Mother and I had started upstairs and toured the main-floor gallery last, and we started out dutifully examining the works carefully—for about half a dozen canvases. Then, losing interest fast, we moved more and more quickly around the room until we couldn’t fake it anymore. None of the work made me want to come back for a midnight shopping trip, that’s for sure. By the time we left, I couldn’t even remember what I’d seen!
Phillip Ratner’s work holds more interest, in my estimation, for its biblical illustration than its artistic distinction. I can imagine that for children, telling the tales of the Old Testament through Ratner’s sculptures would be fun and provocative, but for an art enthusiast, the pieces don’t hold a lot of interest. I went around the circle of the exhibit trying to guess which story was depicted before looking at the label. That’s hardly how I respond to better art when I see a show. I read somewhere that Ratner was advised on his approach to drawing and painting by a film animator and had begun by using some of the techniques used in creating animation “cels.” I’d say that the artist’s sculpting came from the same impulse—to make a cartoon image of a Bible story, not so much an artistic impression of it, much less it’s meaning or impact. A picture’s supposed to be worth a thousand words; Phillip Ratner reduced the words of the Old Testament to a simplistic caricature.
I wasn’t impressed.
[Originally, I wasn’t going to report on this museum visit. The reason, obviously, was my final comment. But the more I considered it, the more I felt that I should go on record about this odd little place. The Ratner Museum isn’t my taste, clearly, but it is somebody’s. There are a handful of “user reviews” on Internet travel sites that attest to that: many visitors enjoyed the art and the biblical depictions. I think it depends on how you feel about the Hebrew Bible: “Mr. Ratner's sculptures depicting Biblical people and stories are amazing”; “Philip Ratner brushes off the beloved Old Testament characters and gives them a modern, sometimes whimsical, deeply symbolic, look that keeps you exploring the piece”; “[T]here is a joy and dynamic in his artworks that's infectuous [sic].” The museum’s exhibits are listed in the Washington Post—and I presume other local outlets—but I found no reviews of them or the museum’s collections (meaning Phillip Ratner’s art) on the ‘Net. The museum has a website, http://www.ratnermuseum.org, which I found a little difficult to navigate, but it does contain information about contacting and visiting the museum.]