“If you ever get to be a famous artist, we should do something together. We should leave a mark.”
Those words, from a conversation between Dennis Ratner, CEO of Ratner Companies, and his cousin, artist Phillip Ratner, have twice become a reality. First, in 1984, with the opening of the Israel Bible Museum in Safed, Israel, and, more recently, in Bethesda, Maryland, where the Dennis and Phillip Ratner Museum opened in 2000.
Both museums feature the work of Phillip Ratner, who was chosen as the artist for Ellis Island, where his grandparents entered the United States, and also enjoys permanent displays at the Smithsonian, U.S. Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and National Zoo, among other locations.
Ratner has worked in a variety of mediums, including sculpture, painting, etched glass, tapestry, drawing, and graphic arts. The artist’s work focuses primarily on stories from the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament.
“As a little kid I went off to Hebrew School,” Ratner remembers. “I fell in love with the stories the first time I heard them.” Ratner’s artistic passion has given the museum’s collection a rare, focused appeal uncommon to small museums: “Everything was created for the museum on the same subject.”
The singular theme, Ratner explained, attracts others passionate about Biblical literature and its artistic interpretation: “Ninety percent of the people are coming to see the stories and the art, not the artist Phillip Ratner.”
Ratner continues to create new work for the museum (nothing is for sale), with current projects focusing on women of the Bible, including the wives of Noah and Judah. Choosing the style and type of clothing for these subjects, a privilege of artistic interpretation, exemplifies the artist’s interest in translating Biblical stories into art.
The museum also offers a unique window into the artist’s process for development of works on Ellis Island. School groups frequent the museum for the opportunity to get up close with the model sculptures later added as full-scale installations on Ellis Island.
The museum has grown in other ways as well. The bottom floor features rotating exhibits created through community partnerships. In particular, the museum collaborates with Cornerstone Montgomery to provide gallery space (free of charge) to artists with mental health disabilities, as well as others from Wounded Warriors.
“The first floor started out as a gallery for changing shows each month, but we wanted to do something more healing, more authentic—a much more honest canvas,” Ratner noted. “There’s no question when you see this work that it’s coming from the heart. It’s not done for decoration or what’s cool in New York.”
Though he occasionally leads tours of the museum, Ratner has been careful to reserve time for ongoing artistic production. “I’m an artist. I was born that way.”