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Master's works make the move to new Dalí Museum

ST. PETERSBURG

Eight blocks. Half a mile. That's the distance between the old Salvador Dalí Museum and the new one, which opens on Tuesday.

Easy getting everything from one place to the next, right?

Maybe if you're talking desks and paper clips.

Not, if you're transferring a collection of art by the Spanish master Salvador Dalí valued at $500 million to $700 million. Though the stroll is only about 10 minutes, you can't just stack the canvases on carts and roll them down the sidewalk.

Instead, it was a four-day, $30,000 event with a mammoth, customized semi-trailer truck and a four-man team from U.S. Art, a Massachusetts company that moves art nationally, internationally or, in this case, up the street.

The process began Monday, the day after the old building at 1000 Third St. S was closed, and five days before the first pre-opening events were scheduled at the new one at 1 Dali Blvd. adjacent to the Mahaffey Theater.

Saved for Wednesday were the four largest paintings, often called the masterworks, that have been displayed in the sunken area informally called the Pit at the old building. (A fifth masterwork had been on loan to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and was shipped directly to the new building.)

They are the most fragile and most difficult because of their size and weight. Three of the four are too large to stand upright even in U.S. Art's largest truck, the jumbo jet of tractor-trailers measuring 69 feet long and 131/2 feet high. So U.S. Art's crating manager J.R. Gilbert, who has worked with the Dalí for 20 years, crafted an A-frame platform on which the paintings could rest at an angle.

The move was planned like a military maneuver and almost surgical in its execution.

But there is always potential for mishaps.

Supervising were Joan Kropf, curator of the collection, and Dirk Armstrong, assistant curator, and it was clearly stressful. Paintings, especially ones this large, are subject to warping if mishandled and, because they are worked on canvas, can be easily torn or scratched.

The first concern Wednesday was the weather, "but thoughtfully, it has cleared," Armstrong said.

(Thoughtfully, the downpour waited for Thursday when the art was in the new building.)

Galacidalacidesoxiribunucleicacid (Homage to Crick and Watson), whose name is about as long as its length of 13-plus feet, was the first large work to come down. It's a typical Dalí narrative, full of mysterious references. Here, many are to the molecular structure of DNA, identified by scientists Crick and Watson in 1953.

Armstrong estimates its weight at about 250 pounds.

The painting, which is 10 feet high, made it without incident to the (very clean) Styrofoam blocks on the floor and into its new crate. Metal clips on the painting bolted to the crate's frame would keep the painting stable in the crate, but first the holes for the bolts had to be penciled on the wood, the painting lifted out before drilling so there would be no contact with sawdust, then returned to the crate and screwed into place. Planks were fitted across it and nailed on, and the whole thing was wrapped in plastic. The crew hoisted it onto dollies and rolled it out to the dock where the tractor-trailer waited with a group of security guards.

So far so good.

A brief moment of frisson occurred when the painting threatened to slide off one of the dollies, catching one of the crew off balance and sending him into the arms of Kropf, who propped herself against him and the crate. The moment passed quickly and the painting was slid onto the A-frame in the truck, buckled in place and on its way. The trailer part of the truck, by the way, is triple-insulated, has a massive cooling system and locks that would require an industrial blowtorch to remove. While the elaborate alarm system was going off, of course.

The ride to the new Dalí lasted less than five minutes.

Things went smoothly at the new museum with its wider loading dock and state-of-the-art freight elevator. The truck is also equipped with a hydraulic system that jacks the trailer up to the exact height of the unloading area, which saved much angst as the painting was carried off. The painting had made landfall in its new home, propped against a wall ready for hanging in 21/2 hours.

Hanging required another hour. And there was no eyeballing as in an amateur home job, though there was the Home Depot Moment, quickly rectified without an actual trip to the hardware store. Gilbert realized the bolts he was using for the installation weren't long enough. Armstrong raced to the museum's shop (not the gift shop, the other one with supplies for framing and maintenance) and found longer ones.

Everything was measured down to the fraction of an inch and a leveler was applied before the painting went up. The standard for hanging a painting is usually about 60 inches from the center of the work to the floor, basically a bit below average eye level. Kropf, however, wasn't overly confident.

"The first one's always the hardest," she said. "Just because. Like pancakes."

(Except you can't throw this first one out.)

She said it was quite possible that the painting would have to be moved slightly up or down, left or right. And because it's hung on a contrivance (invented by the curators), which is a piece of heavy wood fitted with cleat-like hinges and multibolted into the wall, it's more time-consuming than hammering a nail into drywall. (The Dalí's walls are 18 inches of solid concrete.)

But everything turned out perfect.

Eight blocks and half a mile: Galacidalacidesoxiribunucleicacid (Homage to Crick and Watson) is going nowhere else anytime soon.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com.

Coming Sunday

A visitor's guide to the new Dalí Museum and downtown St. Petersburg, including restaurants, hotels and nightlife, in Latitudes.

Master's works make the move to new Dalí Museum 01/06/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 3:16pm]
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