After five years and two abortive attempts, the Chihuly Collection opens today at 400 Beach Drive. It's the only permanent installation in the world that displays an array of the most famous examples of the elaborate works of Dale Chihuly, the man who made studio glass an internationally recognized art form.
The artist was scheduled to come from his home outside Seattle for the opening celebration with the Morean Arts Center, which owns the collection and will operate the facility. Chihuly, 68, was still recovering from "a minor surgical procedure," said Billy O'Neill, an executive with the Chihuly Studios, and was advised by his doctor to stay put.
His presence would have burnished the occasion, but the real triumph is the facility itself.
It's a marvel.
Five galleries and four smaller "vitrines" contain installations and sculptures. All of Chihuly's signatures are here: the Chandeliers, Mille Fiore and Float Boat, each containing hundreds of individual pieces; the Macchia, Venetians and Ikebana created as singular sculptures and arranged in generous groupings; and, of course, a Persian Ceiling.
We have seen most of the works before but never have they been so sensitively displayed.
Architect Albert Alfonso's design, in collaboration with Chihuly, who is a longtime friend, is a generous architectural statement. It's elegant and ambitious without dominating the art. It helps us see and appreciate Chihuly's vision in a new way.
Some were concerned when early plans for a free-standing building were scrapped in favor of existing retail space. With 7,600 square feet, the Chihuly Collection galleries have more space than the original design of 6,000. What Alfonso has done with that bonus space is create rooms that curve and flow into counterpoints of angled areas. The humble materials — stone, wood, metal — become rich interpretations that reflect or absorb the glass' sparkle.
It will be, more than anything for the community, a source of pride and pleasure. As Mayor Bill Foster noted at the ribbon-cutting, it is an attraction that "will put heads in beds" as a tourist draw.
People ask all the time: Why did Dale Chihuly give his blessing to St. Petersburg when he probably could have chosen any number of other cities?
It seems mostly to come down to friendship and goodwill.
It's glamorous and prestigious, to be sure, but the Chihuly Collection is first and foremost the colorful vehicle that Morean Arts Center leaders hope will drive it to the financial stability that has always been elusive. The center, founded in 1917 and located at 719 Central Ave., is a private, not-for-profit organization primarily dedicated to education. It offers classes year-round to thousands of adults and children, and its summer camp program is usually sold out.
Despite its popularity, it has always struggled financially, relying on donations to meet shortfalls. As the economy has declined, so have those gifts. A year ago, its leaders, faced with a monthly $50,000 deficit, considered closing it permanently.
"The arts center has always been fragile and hand-to-mouth. We knew we had to find a way to sustain it in the long term," said Evelyn Craft, who became the center's director in 1997 and resigned in 2009.
In 2004, Craft met with developer Jimmy Aviram to discuss using land he owned for desperately needed parking.
He suggested a more dramatic collaboration: move the operation a block west as the centerpiece of his $200 million condominium project.
And add a Dale Chihuly gallery.
It wasn't as far-fetched an idea as it might have seemed.
Aviram collected Chihuly's art and the two were close friends. An exhibition of Chihuly's work at the Museum of Fine Arts had been a huge success earlier that year, and Chihuly had been touched by the warm welcome he received when he visited. He also liked the educational mission of the arts center and the use of his art to ensure its future. He was receptive.
Craft first met him in December 2004 and through 2005 continued to refine plans with him and Aviram.
With great fanfare, the center announced in August 2005 an agreement with Chihuly to open a museum-quality facility with a comprehensive, permanent collection of his works. The center signed a contract to purchase glass pieces valued at $6 million that would be housed in a 6,000-square-foot building. A new 62,000-square-foot arts center would be adjacent. A hot shop would show visitors how glass art is created. The two buildings' cost would be about $20 million. Philanthropist Beth Morean pledged a lead gift of $8 million, with Aviram pledging a percentage of condominium sales that could add several million more. Chihuly made a rare public appearance to reinforce the uniqueness of the project.
Then … nothing.
The economy slowed down and with it, housing sales. The Arts, as Aviram's project was named, stalled along with many others in the area.
• • •
In January 2008, the month and year the new Morean Arts Center and Chihuly Gallery were to have opened, center leaders announced they were severing ties with the condo project and regrouping on their current site. That facility would cost about $10 million.
The arts center purchased the building next door to accommodate the expansion. New plans were drawn up. A capital campaign was launched. Bank of America pledged $1 million. Chihuly came again, during the groundbreaking ceremony in October, to signal his support.
Again … nothing.
A chain-link fence went up around the now-vacant lot next to the center with no construction activity inside it.
"It was very frustrating," Morean said. "We had permitting and loans in place. We didn't realize that with the economy so bad, banks weren't lending on the basis of pledges."
Craft was in a serious relationship with a prominent businessman and collector who lived in Kansas City, Mo., and the commute was becoming exhausting.
That year, she hired Katee Tully as development director with the plan to groom her to take over the arts center. Tully had an impressive background in education. Her most recent job had been dean of continuing education and work force development at Manhattan Community College. The facility was crushed when the World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. She relocated her program to another facility and got it up and running within weeks. But she, too, wanted a change and accepted the arts center's offer.
In January 2009, Craft announced her resignation and Tully's elevation to executive director of the Morean Arts Center.
By the summer of 2009, Tully and the board were looking at a financial situation so dire, the options on the table included closing the center permanently.
"It became clear our capital campaign had failed," said Jeff McClanathan, the center's treasurer. "We had the money to build a building but not to buy the glass art to go in it. Even if we suddenly had all the money needed, it would take two years to build. We probably couldn't have survived that long."
As unnerving as the crisis was, Tully said, "it gives you enormous permission to make bold moves."
• • •
The board began discussing the option of leasing space, which would free up available funds to purchase the glass sculptures.
McClanathan approached Bob Churuti, a board member who is part of the Hamilton family. They own the first-floor retail space at 400 Beach Drive, a high-rise condominium building.
"He asked me if we had 5,000 square feet available," Churuti said. "We didn't at the time. But the family discussed it and decided it would be such a great thing for the arts center and the city that we negotiated with tenants and managed to get what they needed. We offered a lease that could be extended for 25 years and a seven-figure concession in rent over that time."
"I said no when the idea was first brought to me," Morean said. "It seemed too far away (from the arts center). But the more I looked at it, the better it seemed, right on Beach Drive."
The problem was, she said, "Dale wasn't happy with the space. As much as he wanted to help us, he was ready to walk away."
Albert Alfonso, the Tampa architect who had designed the two previous iterations, had become good friends with Chihuly. He spent three intense weeks on a design for the space that included a new facade.
He and Tully flew to Seattle.
"I showed Dale the little design model I had made," Alfonso said, "and he was sold."
Chihuly said that but for Alfonso's involvement, the project probably would not have happened.
• • •
Over the next six months of contract renegotiations, rumors swirled about the center's demise, relocation, the Chihuly component. Tully declined to comment publicly.
"We had taken the community to the altar twice," Tully said. "We wanted to make sure everything was in place before any more announcements were made."
In February, the deal for the renamed Chihuly Collection was sealed and included bank financing to help with the buildout at 400 Beach Drive. Construction work began immediately with an opening scheduled for July.
July is here.
So is the Chihuly Collection.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.