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Taubman museum revamps Judith Leiber handbag gallery

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Posted: Friday, November 29, 2013 1:00 am

The Taubman Museum of Art’s longest running exhibition has a new look — appropriate for a collection of fashion accessories.

The museum has revamped the Rosalie K. and Sydney Shaftman Gallery that permanently displays its collection of Judith Leiber designer handbags.

The original custom-designed stand in the gallery, which resembled an abstracted tree, has been replaced with more traditional stands that allow the Taubman to showcase the handbags to better effect, said deputy director of exhibitions Amy Moorefield. For example, some of the larger Leibers didn’t fit in the old display.

“We are reconfiguring it with a much more classic presentation for the bags,” Moorefield said. Refreshing the gallery gives the museum a chance to present pieces that haven’t been shown before. “In many ways they’re engineered as objets d’art.”

The museum held a grand reopening for the gallery Friday.

Roanoke arts supporters and philanthropists Rosalie and Sydney Shaftman gave more than 130 custom Leiber handbags and pillboxes to the museum between 2005 and 2008. The Shaftmans started collecting them in the early 1970s.

“I started collecting the purses because I thought they were beautiful,” Rosalie Shaftman told The Roanoke Times in 1997, when the Art Museum of Western Virginia held an exhibition of her collection. At that time, it numbered about 50.

Two of the handbags in the Taubman’s vaults were custom made by Leiber, commissioned by Shaftman for his wife.

The Shaftmans’ names also adorn the Shaftman Performance Hall at the Jefferson Center. Rosalie died in 2011, her husband the year before. One of the clutches custom made for Rosalie Shaftman has a star and the word Roanoke rendered in white crystal on a background of black beads. Because of the Shaftmans, the Taubman has one of the largest Leiber collections in the country.

Born in Hungary in 1921, Leiber originally wanted to be a scientist, but anti-Jewish restrictions imposed in the 1930s prevented her from going to college, so she instead trained in handbag design. She immigrated to the United States after marrying an American soldier in 1946. In New York, she took part in the emerging fashion scene, landing a job creating handbags for clothing designer Nettie Rosenstein. In 1953, when Rosenstein was tapped to make Mamie Eisenhower’s inauguration dress, she chose Leiber to make the matching purse. It was the break that launched her into the spotlight.

Ten years later, she went into business for herself, and three years after that had the inspiration to cover a small metal box purse with rhinestones. After that, sales took off. Leiber bags are favored by first ladies and celebrities on the red carpet. The HBO comedy “Sex and the City” had an episode that revolved around main character Carrie receiving a Leiber compact as a gift.

The handbags are small, Moorefield noted, reflecting Leiber’s philosophy that all a woman needed with her on a night out was a comb — included in the purse — a tube of lipstick and a $100 bill.

A resident of Manhattan, Leiber continued to design luxury purses until 1998, when she retired after a stroke.

She told The Roanoke Times in 1997 that she didn’t think of her work as art. “A handbag is a necessity. You don’t connect that with fine art,’’ she said. “I just try to make beautiful bags that women want to have.’’

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Art of the land

Love of art meets love of the land in the newest exhibition at the O. Winston Link Museum.

“Land+Link” showcases a photography contest organized by the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy. It’s a community outreach project for both nonprofits.

“I just thought because so much of what we have to offer the public is beautiful views, having a photography contest made perfect sense,” said conservancy executive director David Perry , who helped organize the first show three years ago.

The Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, formerly known as the Western Virginia Land Trust, advocates for conservation easements intended to preserve landscapes from commercial development. At present, the organization focuses on Bedford, Botetourt, Craig, Floyd, Franklin, Montgomery and Roanoke counties. The organization states that it holds 43 conservation easements in agreements with landowners, protecting 16,000 acres and 34 miles of streams.

“We’re hoping to conserve some of the very same kind of scenes that you’ll see in some of these photographs,” Perry said.

The contest asks photographers to represent or symbolize Southwest Virginia or the Blue Ridge Mountains, though they’re given a lot of leeway in how they may do so.

The show’s organizers selected 10 photos for the show out of 90 submitted. At the opening Nov. 15, the majority of the show’s prizes were announced, though there’s still a $50 People’s Choice Award decided by popular vote, which will be presented at the closing reception Dec. 13 at 5 p.m.

The show’s judges were WSLS anchorman John Carlin and Roanoke photographers Rebecca Talbot and Barry Wolfe. Rocky Mount photographer Teresa Bernard won both first and second place in the open division competition for a total of $175 in prize money, while Roanoke photographer John Singleton took the $50 third-place prize.

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