Though it's named the Dalí Museum, the place could have easily been called the A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse Museum. The Cleveland transplants lovingly and methodically collected work by the Spanish surrealist for 40 years, and then gave their monumental collection to a museum in St. Petersburg dedicated to the artist. Their belief in his genius, even during times when he was held in disfavor by the art world, never wavered and precluded any suggestion that the museum bear any name other than Dalí's.
Morse was a brilliant, soon-to-be-wealthy entrepreneur who was born in Denver and settled in Cleveland. Mrs. Morse was a cultivated, well-educated Cleveland native. They met at a concert and shared a love of all the arts. They saw a visiting show by Dalí at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1942, shortly before they married. As a belated wedding gift to each other, they bought their first Dalí painting in 1943. And never stopped. In the late 1970s, they decided to donate their collection, which by then totaled about 1,400 works, including 93 paintings, to a museum. Problem was, no one wanted it because of the restriction that came with it to keep the collection intact.
St. Petersburg civic leaders saw that restriction as a bountiful opportunity to have a museum dedicated exclusively to the artist whose work might not be everyone's taste but would certainly attract a lot of attention.
The reluctant Morses were won over by the proposed site, which reminded them of Dalí's native Catalonia with its sea and rocks. When they informed the Dalís of their decision, the artist's wife, Gala, reportedly shrieked with delight that the city was named for one in Russia, her birth country.
The museum opened in 1982.
The Morses were deeply involved with it for the rest of their lives. Reynolds Morse died in 2000; Eleanor Morse died July 1. She had been part of the early planning stages for a new museum building, but by the time ground was broken for it in 2008, she had become ill and probably was never able to appreciate its full scope.
One thing about the new building is exactly the same as it was for the old building: the name. The Morses, to the end, were self-effacing.
Lennie Bennett, Times art critic