New Dali Museum ramps up St. Petersburg’s art scene

City Life Reflects Art

Time melted away as we painted our crude versions of Dali’s famous limp clocks from “Persistence of Memory.”This surreal thing is harder than it looks!

Just hours away from the 1/11/11 1:11 p.m. opening of the new Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, our hosts had a group of us journalists from around the world getting elbow-deep in Dali at a place on Central Avenue called Painting with a Twist, where you can learn to paint while sipping whatever you bring in.

I could have used something strong, the way my oeuvre was turning out.

Along Central Avenue and intersecting bayfront Beach Drive in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, the effect Dali has had on the town since a collection of his work first arrived in1980 is exceedingly evident.

Before Dali, retirement homes and iconic green benches characterized the town’s failing health.

“Pelicans. Lots of pelicans. Bronze pelicans, pelican paintings,” Dali museum director Hank Hine describes the art scene back in that time.

Then came that day when young local lawyer Jim Martin read an article in the Wall Street Journal reporting that an Ohio couple was having problems giving awaya 1,400-piece collection of original Salvador Dali works.

The usual crowd...

Collectors and patrons, A. Reynolds and Eleanor R. Morse, required only that the collection remain intact, which made housing it difficult for most existing art museums.

At Martin’s urging, the collection ended up in a 30,000-square-foot home on Tampa Bay.

Through the years, the collection grew to 2,140 pieces including 96 oil paintings. Seven of them are considered masterworks and measure up to 16 feet in height.

The collection – the largest outside of Spain – had to be rotated because it was too extensive to show all together.

Then there was the threat of flooding and hurricanes destroying the priceless collection (no one ventures to estimate the worth of such an extensive body of Dali work).

In 2008, the museum’s board of directors began its search for an architect to design a new, more secure and ample facility on the museum’s grounds.

Enter the city of St. Petersburg: Officials easily persuaded the board to relocate a half-mile north on the site of the recently imploded Bayfront Center, next to city-owned Mahaffey Theater.

Sharing grounds and a new parking ramp and plaza with the theater led several at the January opening ceremonies to refer to the new cultural waystop as St. Petersburg’s Lincoln Center. Others hailed it as the town’s Golden Gate Bridge, a new icon for the city.

Hello Dali

“Finally we have a building worthy of housing the art of one of the greatest artists ever known,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

Men and even women wearing black pipe-cleaner moustaches: Saw that coming. But the towering snail-headed creature, the life-sized papier mache giraffe on wheels, lobster neckties, fish necklaces, a real-live Spanish duchess, and skimpily dressed pseudo-senoritas shivering in the 54-degree chill?

Let’s just say that the opening day ceremonies at the new Dali Museum exceeded my expectations of surreal.

Dali would have been proud. Everyone said so.

Actress and self-admitted major Dali fan, Susan Sarandon, said so a couple of nights earlier at a special meet-and-greet for museum donors and members: “It’s so bold, and he’s so bold,” she said, speaking of the suitability of the new, specially designed museum building, calling it “strong and trippy.”

The S.A.R. la Infanta Christina of Spain, Duchess of Palma de Mallorca, used “handsome” and “audacious” to describe it when she cut the ribbon at the grand opening. She likened it to the waves and rocks of Dali’s homeland.

Concrete block boxy wrapped with helixesque glass ribbon, it pays homage to geodesic dome meister Buckminster Fuller, a friend of Dali’s and the designer of the artist’s museum in Spain.

The new $36 million, 66,000-square-foot building on Tampa Bay characterizes the sheer essence of Salvador Dali — an artist fearless in his pursuit of surrealistic drama and startling juxtaposition — and more than doubles the size of the original museum.

Yann Weymouth, the local architect who won the international competition to design the new museum, took cues from Dali’s work, of course, but also from his life – visiting Spain and meeting with friends and acquaintances.

“The design almost created itself,” he said. “A lot of science and art came together to accomplish it.”

As powerful a statement as the exterior makes, the interior trumps it not only for the treasure it holds, but for the view of the bay the geodesic form, called the Enigma, affords and the way it ties into the museum’s architectural centerpiece — a 63-step, three-story spiral staircase.

It evokes Dali snail and DNA symbolism and seems to defy all laws of physics.

More than 1,000 triangles compose the Enigma, each unique in shape and size.

Whether you get there by the double-helix staircase or double-fast elevator, you’ll find on the third floor two wings of galleries.

The south wing contains the Morse collection in a series of small galleries arranged counterclockwise (because Dali’s clocks were always counter-realistic?) in chronological order, beginning with his early, more traditional and imitative works.

At the entrance to the wing, Dali’s circa-1940 Daddy Longlegs of the Evening – Hope! painting introduces the Morse collection with the first Dali piece the Morses purchased, as a wedding present to one another.

Like so many of Dali’s paintings, it makes a graphic statement about the state of the war-threatened world at the time.

One immediately appreciates in this and subsequent galleries the space and lighting that allows the viewer to concentrate upon and enjoy each piece without distraction from the next.

In comparison, the old museum was crowded and cramped and overloaded sensory-wise. Here, natural light bathes the masterworks in softness. Each of the oversized paintings has a dedicated “chapel,” rather than being grouped in one room, as in the past.

The short distance around the galleries takes the visitor through the life of Dali and the landscape of his mind with dreamy, sexual, often hallucinogenic images, some tricking the eye. Some messing with the mind.

The north wing is devoted to Dali’s newer, more commercial endeavors, including the iconic lobster telephone and his films.

It also displays the Dali photography of Philippe Halsman and will host changing Dali-related exhibits.

An art library and office space occupy the second floor.

On the first floor, one enters and departs through the gift store, filled with ant-ridden T-shirts, molten clocks, eyeball jewelry, geodesic neckties, art books, and a slew of other Dali-related items.

Café Gala, named for Dali’s wife, serves Spanish coffee, wine, and food with a view of the Avant Gardens and city yacht harbor.

A short orientation film shows in the 100-seat theater, and a community room demonstrates the new Dali’s interconnectedness with its hometown.

The private sector raised $20 million to build this new museum, and citizen pride is obvious.

The Florida Orchestra, performing next door at Mahaffey, created a performance titled “Hello Dali” for the occasion of its opening.

The Dali-Mahaffey complex, with its indoor and outdoor event spaces, promises to become a new town center.

With its move closer to the central downtown area, the Dali is now within walking distance to the town’s other art gems, including the permanent Dale Chihuly art glass collection that debuted in July 2010 at the Morean Arts Center, and the Museum of Fine Arts, a long-standing institution that recently expanded with a new wing designed by the new Dali architect, Weymouth.

“It’s monumental in these economic times that we have this new museum, an expansion at the Museum of Fine Arts, Chihuly, and Tampa Museum of Art’s new museum,” said DT Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

“We’re marketing it as an arts experience. It’s a phenomenal combination with two phenomenal artists at each end. With Central Avenue’s independent galleries, it all becomes a vibrant, eclectic experience.”

Downtown’s venerable circa-1925 Renaissance Vinoy Resort’s Marchand Bar & Grill got in the act with special restaurant menus designed to emulate the color, verve, and Spanish and Washington State influences, respectively, of Dali and Chihuly.

The Chihuly Collection comprises 13 glass indoor and outdoor exhibits; most of the pieces Chihuly fashioned expressly for the Morean Arts Center; he oversaw installation personally.

The center employed architect Albert Alfonso to design spaces for the exhibits that evoke the forests of Chihuly’s homeland and set off the glass wonders to their best advantage with lighting, shadows, and reflections.

Visitors can also see drawings by Chihuly, visions that his team executes into exquisite works now that an eye and shoulder injury prevent him from doing the strenuous glass blowing himself.

All of his iconic motifs are represented – chandeliers, mille fiori (a thousand flowers), baskets, vases, seaforms, floats, and a glorious Persian ceiling and wall.

Glass art is nothing new to St. Petersburg. The Morean also maintains a Glass Studio and Hotshop on Central Avenue.

In the quirky intercity community of Gulfport, the Industrial Arts Center hosts glassblowing demonstrations and blow-your-own sessions.

Glassblower Owen Pach is among the 60-plus artists that live, work, or display in the colorful neighborhood of historic shops and galleries, monthly art walks, bayfront beach, ballroom dancing, B&Bs, and fun and funky restaurants such as Peg’s Cantina (a beer snob’s haven), waterfront O’Maddy’s Bar and Grille (home of the roast beef on kummelweck sandwich), 40-year-old La Côte Basque Winehouse, and award-winning Backfin Blue Café.

“We’re the beach mentality and downtown arts mentality combined,” said Lori Rosso, owner of Sea Breeze Manor B&B Inn.

Out on the string of beaches that front the St. Petersburg peninsula, Pass-a-Grille rates as another charming arts community.

Splurge at Evander Preston on extravagant art jewelry that celebs have popped up to five figures to wear. Or find local artwork in the two to three-figure range at pink and pinky-sized A Little Room for Art.

Pink is the color of Pass-a-Grille and St. Pete Beach since the 1920s, when the Don CeSar Resort hosted Scott and Zelda in the cotton candy-colored palace on the beach where the two communities meet.

Its Maritana Grill ranks as one of the finest local beach restaurants.Its recent remake echoes Chihuly with glass balls and other glass art.

Creative flavor-packed dishes include tuna tartare and cinnamon-dusted duck appetizers; entrees such as sous vide black grouper and rack of lamb with mushroom risotto; and Norman Love chocolates.

Culinary art resonates as clearly and vibrantly as the visual arts around St. Petersburg.

Back downtown, at the 46-year-old Museum of Fine Arts, they entwine like Dali’s strands of DNA or Chihuly’s sinuous vase protrusions.

Here art glass dates back to Steuben and Tiffany. In addition, its permanent exhibits demonstrate a breadth from pre-Colombian to Monet and O’Keeffe.

In its newest wing, a donation of 12,000 daguerreotype, albumen, and other photographs displays.

The MFA Café, also part of the expansion, creates new airy space that serves delightful, affordable noshes and lunches such as empanadas, smoked duck salad, and roasted herb-crusted turkey panini.

“Dali went beyond the definition of a painter,” said architect Weymouth. “That’s why he is perpetually inspiring to artists.”

And that is why and how he has inspired a once-dying city to rise up in majesty to embrace, promote, and further the arts.

This surreal thing is more seductive than you’d think!

IF YOU GO:

A Little Room for Art, 727-360-8572, www.alittleroomforart.com

Backfin Blue Café, 727-343-2583, www.backfinbluecafe.com

Dali Museum, 727-823-3767, www.thedali.org

Don CeSar Beach Resort and Maritana Grille, 727-360-1881, www.doncesar.com

Evander Preston, 727-367-7894, www.evanderpreston.com

Industrial Arts Center, 727-289-9365, www.industrialartscenter.org

La Cote Basque Winehouse, 727-321-6888

Marchand’s Bar & Grill, 727-894-1000, www.vinoyrenaissanceresort.com

O’Maddy’s Bar and Grille, 727-323-8643, www.omaddys.us

Morean Arts Center, 727-896-4527, www.moreanartscenter.org.

Museum of Fine Arts and MFA Café, 727-896-2667, www.fine-arts.org

Painting with a Twist, 727-327-4488, www.paintingwithatwist.com

Peg’s Cantina, 727-328-2720, www.pegscantina.com

Progress Energy Center for the Arts Mahaffey Theater, 727-892-5767, www.mahaffeytheater.com

Sea Breeze Manor, 888-343-4445, www.seabreezemanor.com

Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater, 800-352-3224, www.visitstpeteclearwater.com

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