Saying goodbye doesn't always have to be bittersweet. In fact, it sometimes is just plain sweet, especially when it involves retirement. As of the last day of December, Lennie Bennett has officially retired as art critic for the Tampa Bay Times after chasing down regional exhibitions for the past 15 years.
“I have no talent as an artist. I’ve tried painting, drawing, and ceramics. I know intellectually what has to be done, but I don’t have the hand-to-brain required. That’s why I admire artists, because they do what I never could,” she explains. (She allows that she did win a contest for a pastel drawing in middle school; then again, she was the only entrant.)
When Bennett was asked in 2001 to step into the newspaper's art critic job, she said she wasn’t qualified. Though she had written for the paper since 1995, first as a social columnist and then as a general assignment reporter, she didn't feel her liberal arts education had given her the art history background for the job.
“[They] told me the night cop doesn’t have experience either, but they just start doing it. There were many in the arts community who were dubious and dismayed that I was given this job because I didn’t have the credentials, but I have a really fast learning curve. You don’t need to have an intellectual background, you just need to have a seeing background to talk about art at any level. I taught myself how to think about seeing, and start discerning how an exhibition is done,” she says.
Bennett considers herself more of an educator than "critic," and believes that’s more where art criticism is headed.
“For decades, opinions came from on high about what was good or bad. My thought is: Like it or don’t like it, but understand why you feel that way. That’s what I think my job is — to give people the tools to understand their reactions to the artwork,” she says.
It never fails that after an exhibition press preview, you can find Bennett going back and forth between paintings for a few hours after everyone has left.
“I love press previews or going early in the morning because I’ve had the privilege to see art without anyone else there,” she says. “It is such a luxury to have the opportunity to be in a gallery all by myself, and I will miss that tremendously.
“The best way to see the art is to spend time with the work to see what the intention of the show is. Curators are so important, they are like art editors. Once you question what the exhibition or curator is trying to say, you can tease out the strengths and weaknesses,” she explains. “In all art, there’s something that springs from a source from the past, and that’s what I try to figure out: what’s the line between the past and the present, and what circumstances generated this particular response.”
One of the challenges in reviewing is not coming off too harshly, which is why Bennett feels that words shouldn’t be wasted on negative reviews of smaller exhibitions.
“Making judgment calls about what to cover was the hardest part for me. My one regret is that I couldn’t write more about under-acknowledged art scenes, because I think every artist and local gallery deserves a certain level of recognition,” she says.
Over the years, what stands out the most to Bennett is the growth in prestige of our regional museums. Recognizing the strengths of our arts programming, there are some weaknesses to be addressed.
“There’s a cautionary note in saying we are a vibrant arts community because we are just that, but we are a terrible art market. There’s a disconnect that concerns me: We have these great museums, galleries, and other venues, but we don’t have people buying, and the expectations are very low in terms of price. When you think of the great artists that lived in this region like Rosenquist or Rauschenberg, none of them have local representation here. There have been some ambitious galleries that tried to make it here, but eventually closed because people aren’t willing to pay those prices,” Bennett explains. “I don’t think the general public realizes this, but I want people to understand that.”
Even though she will be enjoying time off, you might still find her still writing the occasional art review with the Times. Because writing is what makes Bennett an artist herself.
At press time, the Times had not responded to an inquiry as to whether it would hire a full-time staff critic as her replacement or use freelance writers to cover the visual art scene.