Dale Chihuly visits his namesake St. Petersburg gallery

International glass artist Dale Chihuly, center, signs copies of the new exhibition catalog at the Chihuly Collection gallery in St. Petersburg on Sunday. It was his first visit to the gallery.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

International glass artist Dale Chihuly, center, signs copies of the new exhibition catalog at the Chihuly Collection gallery in St. Petersburg on Sunday. It was his first visit to the gallery.

ST. PETERSBURG —Before a crowd that started lining up hours earlier, international glass artist Dale Chihuly paid a visit Sunday for his first look at the Chihuly Collection, the museum-quality gallery that houses his most famous and representative works.

He was joined at the downtown gallery by several hundred fans of his dramatic sculptures, which can consist of hundreds of pieces of glass. Most clutched a newly published catalogue of the collection for him to sign.

The line began forming about 11 a.m. for the 1 p.m. book-signing, said Katee Tully, director of the Morean Arts Center, which owns and operates the gallery. By noon, it snaked along most of the sidewalk in front of the Chihuly Collection on Beach Drive between Fourth and Fifth avenues NE.

It has had about 120,000 visitors in its first 18 months, Tully said, and its gift store is among the top five revenue producers of Chihuly art and related merchandise in the world.

For health reasons, Chihuly, 69, had been unable to come when the collection bearing his name — the only one in the world — opened in July.

Before the signing, he took a tour with Tully and Albert Alfonso, the Tampa architect who designed the space and is a good friend. This was the third collaboration between them for a Chihuly installation in St. Petersburg. The first two, which would have been free-standing, were scrapped because of costs, and Alfonso carved this one from the first floor of a condominium complex that was intended for retail space.

"It feels like it's about 15,000 square feet instead of 7,500," Chihuly said. "This was a big challenge and Albert did a wonderful job on exhibiting so many diverse installations. It looks great."

Visitors going through the collection stopped and stared as he passed; Chihuly is usually recognized by the eye patch he has worn since a 1976 car crash in which he lost his left eye.

"Is that him, the guy with an eye patch?" asked Grant Van Aman. The 17-year-old Tampa resident, who is a senior at Plant High School, had never heard of Chihuly before his mother, Nancy, asked him to come to the book-signing for Mother's Day. "It's awesome."

But, he added, his mom paid for the tickets and the catalogue.

Lennie Bennett, can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

Dale Chihuly visits his namesake St. Petersburg gallery 05/08/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 9, 2011 1:54pm]

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