St. Pete enlists Dalí among its Florida allures

Yann Weymouth’s design for the Dalí Museum echoes the artist’s surrealism. Yann Weymouth’s design for the Dalí Museum echoes the artist’s surrealism. (Ellen Albanese for The Boston Globe)
By Ellen Albanese
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2011

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ST. PETERSBURG — “Our Golden Gate Bridge’’: This is the way city and tourism officials describe the new building that houses one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Salvador Dalí. The stunning structure — a concrete box wrapped in a futuristic swirl of glass reflecting the palm-studded Tampa Bay shoreline — opened last month, and it’s destined to be as much of a draw as the surrealist master’s works themselves.

The new Dalí Museum is the latest in a series of developments that have dramatically expanded this city’s arts offerings, leading American Style magazine to name St. Petersburg the nation’s top midsize city for art in 2010. Last July, the Morean Arts Center opened the long-awaited Chihuly Collection in a new 10,000-square-foot space on Beach Drive; it’s the only permanent installation in the world of the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly. In 2008 the Museum of Fine Arts opened a new wing, doubling its exhibition space. And along Central Avenue, a formerly distressed neighborhood has been rehabbed as an artists’ enclave, with studios, galleries, and vintage clothing stores.

The heart of downtown runs along the shore from the Dalí Museum to the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, a Mediterranean Revival gem that has been restored to its 1925 grandeur. In this pretty, walkable stretch, you’ll find Chihuly Collection and several galleries. Head west on Central Avenue to the emerging 600 block and the Morean Arts Center, which has added a 4,000-square-foot glass studio and hot shop to support and train glass artists and let the public see the primitive process at the core of the large-scale installations for which Chihuly is known.

The Dalí Museum began with a charge to protect the collection — 96 oils, more than 100 watercolors and drawings, and more than 1,300 works on paper, sculptures, objets d’art, and photographs. The paintings, from the private collection of A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, represent the largest collection of Dalí works outside Spain. The 18-inch-thick walls are designed to withstand a category 5 hurricane, and the collection is housed on the third floor, above the reach of the stormiest sea. But the goal, said architect Yann Weymouth of HOK, was a building that reflected the spirit of the freethinking Dalí (1904-89).

Weymouth succeeded so well that the building is worth a visit even if you don’t care for surrealism. The “glass enigma,’’ which appears appliquéd to the concrete exterior, is based on Buckminster Fuller’s classic geodesic dome. No two of the 1,062 triangles are exactly alike. The structure floods the building with light and offers scenic views of the bay. A central staircase that rises three stories with no visible support is modeled after a DNA strand. Outside, the grotto-like “Avant Gardens’’ display a vertical wall of Florida plants, while another garden creates a visual representation of pi in stone blocks, picking up on Dalí’s interest in mathematics.

In the old Dalí, the massive “master works’’ were grouped in one gallery; here, each has its own space. In some areas, the ceiling admits natural light, allowing visitors to view the painting as the artist saw it when he created it. And with twice the exhibition space, the new museum can display all 96 oil paintings at once and still have room for special exhibits.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, the new, light-filled Hazel Hough Wing, also designed by Weymouth, more than doubles the exhibit space and provides a setting for rotating exhibitions. “Romantics to Moderns: A Survey of British Watercolors and Drawings from the Collection of BNY Mellon,’’ which continues through May 1, features 70 works by 48 British artists from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. Opening Feb. 19 is “Familiar and Fantastic: Photographs from the Dandrew-Drapkin Donation,’’ which spans over 100 years and highlights the museum’s photography collection.

The permanent collection includes a wide range of objects, from a marble Cycladic figure from 2500 BC to contemporary American art. We liked the display of Steuben glass, the etched surfaces sparkling against black velvet in a dimly lighted gallery.

Nothing compares with the genre- and physics-bending glass work by Chihuly. The Chihuly Collection includes large-scale chandeliers, freestanding installations, and his smaller works such as Macchia, Persians, and Seaforms. Even the largest pieces have a delicate, ethereal quality, and the colors are stunning. Like Dalí’s paintings, Chihuly’s art can be appreciated on many levels, and viewing the freestanding elements from all sides provides ever-changing vistas.

For a better appreciation of the work that goes into these glass creations, head west on Central Avenue to the Morean Arts Center Glass Studio and aptly named Hot Shop to see glass artists at work. From aluminum bleachers we watched Christian Zvonik and Doug Taylor “gather’’ molten glass in the fiery furnace or “glory hole,’’ then begin to blow and shape it. Their routine was somewhere between ballet and surgery: At each step of the process there’s a tiny window where the glass is still malleable enough to work, and in that small space each moved quickly and precisely, handing off and picking up the primitive tools. We got a taste of how frustrating the process can be when the item didn’t yield to the proper shape, and the glass blower had to trash it and start again.

Heading back toward downtown on Central Avenue takes you past several new galleries and vintage clothing stores in the 600 block, including Misred Outfitters, a boutique stocked with vintage, used, and reconstructed clothing; Dazzio Art Experience, Judith Dazzio’s visual arts school and gallery; and Vitale Art Studio, offering decorative arts, signs, and graphic design. A delicate wrought-iron gate marks the entrance to the 1926 Crislip Arcade. Slated for demolition in 2008, the arcade has been renovated and now houses galleries and shops such as the Donna Gordon Gallery, which is also a working sculpture studio.

“St. Pete has always been well known for the big guys, like Dalí,’’ says Sara Stonecipher, owner of Misred, “so it’s nice to see the independent, local arts scene take off as well. ’’ Many of the 600 block merchants have been pioneers on that scene for 15 years, she said, and their participation “gives the block validity.’’

The city is celebrating its arts renaissance. Through April, the Vinoy’s Marchand Bar & Grill offers a prix fixe menu at $16.25 for lunch and $19.25 for early dinner featuring items from Spain and Chihuly’s Northwest coast. Cassis, an American brasserie, offers lunch or dinner for $20.11. The Downtown Arts Association sponsors a Gallery Walk on the second Saturday of each month; participants begin at the Morean Arts Center, then follow Central Avenue to downtown and finish at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at

If You Go

What to do
Dalí Museum
1 Dalí Blvd.
The Chihuly Collection
400 Beach Drive
Morean Arts Center Galleries, Glass Studio, and Hot Shop
719 Central Ave.
Museum of Fine Arts
255 Beach Drive NE
Central Avenue Arts District
600 block
Where to stay
Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club
501 Fifth Ave. NE
From $259.
Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront
334 First St. South
Rooms $110-$270.
Where to eat
Cassis American Brasserie
170 Beach Drive NE
Bella Brava
204 Beach Drive NE
Paciugo Gelato and Cafe
300 Beach Drive NE