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How the Salvador Dalí Museum came to be in St. Petersburg, Florida

Life in general is full of improbables. The one I'm pondering at the moment sits in an old warehouse on a small patch of St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront.

It's the most comprehensive collection of work by the Spanish artist Salvador Dalí and includes 96 oil paintings. It's called, as you all know, the Salvador Dalí Museum.

There's no logical reason for its being here. As much as I love this city, place of my and my father's birth, having a museum of this stature in St. Petersburg isn't what you would call the expected thing.

Yet here it is.

In January, it moves to larger, more glamorous digs, a dramatic building designed by architect Yann Weymouth, a bit north of the current location.

Before the collection is packed up, museum staff have organized a show honoring the people most responsible for this remarkable institution, Eleanor and A. Reynolds Morse.

They're the Cleveland couple who methodically and passionately collected works by Dalí over a 45-year period, then tried to give them to a number of major museums in big cities that coolly declined because of the Morses' insistence that the collection be kept intact.

An enterprising young St. Petersburg lawyer named Jim Martin read about their quandary in the Wall Street Journal and thought, why not here?

The Morses had plenty of reasons for "why not here." They weren't sure where St. Petersburg was and they were unimpressed with it during most of a 1980 visit that Martin and a city official had finally persuaded them to make.

They were in definite "no" mode during a stop at a possible site on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus when they looked across the water to a rocky outcropping beneath the seawall and a derelict building beyond.

Eleanor Morse said it was a moment of epiphany. That's where they could build a museum for their collection, they said, on a site that reminded them of Dalí's beloved Catalonian landscape.

The Dalí Museum opened in 1982 and attracts about 200,000 visitors annually, most from out of town, many from outside the United States.

The Morses could, of course, have attached their name to the museum, or insisted it be a prominent subtitle like "The Morse Collection at the Dalí Museum." They didn't, preferring the straightforward title it now bears.

Reynolds Morse died in 2000 and Eleanor Morse, 97, is in failing health. Their photograph continues to hang in the entrance gallery, but as time goes by, the pool of people who have known them will dwindle.

The archival materials and information curators Joan Kropf and Dirk Armstrong have interspersed on gallery walls with Dalí paintings really gives us a sense of these remarkable people.

A short (too short) video lets their personalities shine. Both are fine raconteurs but Eleanor Morse is especially endearing in a funny story she tells of first collecting Dalí.

The couple had just married when they visited a Dalí exhibition in 1942. Where many others were shocked by his work, the Morses were fascinated and purchased their first painting in 1943.

She says her father was especially distressed, thinking that anyone who spent money on such "art" had to be crazy so he'd probably have to support them for life.

The Morses met Dalí that same year and began a friendship that would last until the artist's death in 1989. Photographs document their trips to Spain and New York to spend time with Dalí and his wife, Gala.

Additional wall labels highlight certain works: Daddy Longlegs of the Evening — Hope! and Velazquez Painting the Infanta Marguerita With the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory, Eleanor Morse's favorite painting (which is hard to read in its location with lights creating a glare on its glass, alas), and a drawing Dalí made as a gift to the Morses in which he depicts himself as a submerged iceberg with only a small portion of himself visible. Daddy Longlegs was their first purchase; it cost $1,200 and the frame Dalí selected for it was $1,800.

The story of this conservative Midwestern couple becoming the greatest collectors of the eccentric Salvador Dalí, and then actually enjoying his equally eccentric milieu is, as Kropf says, "a fantastic story."

It sounds so improbable, yet it's so true.

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

. IF YOU GO

Sharing Salvador: The History of the Dalí Museum and the Morse Collection

The exhibition is at the Salvador Dalí Museum, 1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg, through December. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $17 adults; $14.50 seniors, teachers with ID, police, military and firefighters; $12 students ages 10 and over; and $4 kids 5 to 9. Thursdays are $5 from 5 to 8 p.m. (727) 823-3767 or salvadordali-

museum.org.

How the Salvador Dalí Museum came to be in St. Petersburg, Florida 06/19/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 1:43am]

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