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Libbey made glass and a museum that shines in Toledo

''Piece for piece, it's one of the top museums in the country," said Timothy Rub, Cincinnati Art Museum director. ''And they have one of the larger endowments, especially for a city that size."

Rub was referring not to Cincinnati, but to Toledo and the Toledo Art Museum. Venturing to the northwest corner of Ohio, where Michigan, Lake Erie, and Toledo meet, meant an hour detour from our scheduled drive to Cleveland. But with Rub's recommendation in hand, my brother and I took the bait and soon enough found ourselves walking through the Ionic columns of the museum's Greek facade.

Within 10 minutes, we were downright giddy viewing the art. Sure, they had all the favorites -- van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso -- but it was the distinctiveness of their works that held our interest. For example, Gauguin's ''Street in Tahiti" (1891) is a sumptuous landscape he painted upon his arrival in the South Pacific. Devoid of any sensual Tahitian women, the work is unlike many of his familiar canvases of this period. Picasso's ''Woman With a Crow" (1904), taken from his blue period, depicts a gaunt woman whose long fingers pet a crow as she kisses it on her lap. It is both disturbing and tender at the same time.

Added treats are the museum's Cloister, circa 1150-1400, stone columns and arches that were merged from three abandoned monastery sites in southwestern France. Contemporary artist Sol LeWitt was commissioned by the museum to create a work on the curving corridor of the lower promenade. The result is ''Wall Drawing No. 760" (1994), a series of strange shapes that sizzle with color as you walk beside them.

The Toledo Museum of Art was founded in 1901 primarily through the benevolence of one Edward Drummond Libbey. In 1888, Libbey moved his New England Glass Co. from Boston to Toledo, attracted by the city's location on rail and shipping routes and the abundant sand along Lake Erie for making glass. By 1920, Libbey Glass employed thousands in the manufacturing of bottles, tubing, lightbulbs, and sheet glass. Libbey (1854-1925) used his wealth not only to collect and bequeath art to the museum, but for a rich endowment still at work years after his death. At work -- and worth going out of your way to see.

STEPHEN JERMANOK

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