Chew on Art Aesthetics at New Institute

For years it has been a South Florida cultural landmark. First it was a movie house called the Lake Theater. Then it was the Lannan Museum, home to the collection of J. Patrick Lannan, a financier with deep pockets and a penchant for modern and contemporary American and European art who renovated the building's interior in 1980. Before relocating to Los Angeles in 1986, the Lannan Foundation donated the space to Palm Beach Community College. It also left behind a substantial chunk of Lannan's collection, including the kinetic art that became the basis of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Now the imposing, two-story white building in downtown Lake Worth is poised to assume yet another identity. After PBCC decided to get out of the business of running an art museum and closed MoCA last year, the property was purchased by attorney and philanthropist Robert Montgomery and his wife, Mary, who have sponsored a facelift on a scale that's dramatic even by Palm Beach standards.

On March 4 the former MoCA will reopen to the public as the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PB/ICA). Quite a mouthful, but perhaps an appropriately daunting moniker for a museum that promises to showcase the sort of cutting-edge art not typically found north of the Miami-Dade County line.

The 61-year-old Art Deco building's new look is dominated by a large glass wall, replacing the solid concrete façade that once separated the lobby from the street. Now people on busy Lake Avenue will no longer have to wonder what's going on inside -- they'll be able to peer in and see what the current exhibition is, as well as catch a glimpse of The Battle of the Sexes, the large lobby frieze designed by artist Tom Otterness specifically for the site back in its Lannan days.

The museum's cavernous central display space remains largely intact, although the staircase leading to the balcony gallery has been reworked, and other architectural details have been tweaked. The raked floor, a throwback to the building's years as the Lake Theater, has been leveled, and a high-tech suspended lighting system has been installed. The idea is to create a relatively neutral environment that can assume the identity of the art on display at any given time.

To get the museum up and running, an interim management team has been brought in until a permanent staff is hired. Amy Cappellazzo, a veteran art writer and teacher and recent director of the Rubell Family Collections in Miami, serves as visiting curator. For PB/ICA's inaugural exhibition, she has assembled "Making Time: Considering Time as a Material in Contemporary Video & Film."

The ambitious show uses the works of 29 artists to explore the use of time as subject matter for art. The pieces were created between the '60s and the present by artists who pioneered time-based art and by their contemporary counterparts. Among the progenitors are Andy Warhol, whose film Empire (1964) was essentially one long, static take of the Empire State Building; and the South Korean Nam June Paik, who in the mid-'60s took advantage of newly developed portable video cameras to make tapes that he then screened a few hours later in a Manhattan nightclub. The remaining 17 artists include Canadian-born Stan Douglas and Dara Friedman of Miami, both current creators of video art.

"I think the topic is something people can wrap their minds around," says Cappellazzo. She also acknowledges that "daring isn't always really popular" and applauds Robert and Mary Montgomery for their commitment to media that challenge traditional assumptions about art. "Video art is now more than 30 years old," she says, "and people are still arguing about whether it's really art."

If Cappellazzo and the Montgomerys have their way, the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art -- with "Making Time" and future exhibitions -- will provide a forum for such ongoing aesthetic arguments.

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Michael Mills