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St. Petersburg's new home for the Dalí collection is the result of persistence ... and destiny.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Dalí Museum has always seemed to belong here.

For 28 years, it has been a star of cultural tourism in Florida, drawing millions of visitors from around the world to a city that had little name recognition among arts lovers before the Dalí's opening in 1982. They come to see the world's second-largest collection of works by the 20th century artist, bested only by the museum Dalí himself founded in his hometown of Figueres, Spain. The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg is also considered by many experts to be the most comprehensive in representing the wide swath of Dalí's career, its centerpiece a group of 96 oil paintings that span his life from boyhood through old age.

In two days, its star is expected to blaze brighter with the opening of a new, $36 million building that doubles the museum's size, giving it more display space for the art, and makes a dynamic architectural statement on the city's downtown waterfront. All 96 of its paintings will be on display for the first time, giving both the public and academics an opportunity to take the full measure of his accomplishments as a great artist. Director Hank Hine is working on a large special exhibition of works by Pablo Picasso with the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and other major institutions, possibly for 2013, a show that probably could never have happened at the former building and an indication of the ambitions for the new one.

But the Dalí Museum has never been as inevitable a fixture as it now seems. It came, has remained and thrived despite random circumstances that could easily have prevented its existence or growth. In a way, lucky breaks enabled this expansive moment.

Four key events stand out over the course of its history, all unrelated and all beyond the control of individuals who have guided the museum through the years. They include the offended wife of novelist James Michener, a death that paved the way for new life, a blowhard named Andrew, and a group of meeting planners.

• • •

As many times as the story has been told about A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse bringing their world-class collection of Salvador Dalí's art to St. Petersburg, little emphasis is placed on their reluctance to do so. The city was never a serious contender until their top two choices failed them.

The story begins in the 1970s when the Cleveland couple, who had amassed a collection of art by Salvador Dalí valued at up to $70 million at the time, wanted to give it to a major museum. Their condition was that the collection be kept intact, which no institution would agree to, wanting the freedom to keep the choicest works and sell the rest.

A 30-year-old St. Petersburg lawyer named James Martin read a story about their frustration in the Wall Street Journal and on Jan. 18, 1980, Martin cold-called Reynolds Morse and pitched the city as a perfect location for a Dalí museum. He was thanked and dismissed, Morse saying that they were close to a deal with Denver or Austin.

Martin, undaunted, gathered a group of prominent civic and business leaders and city officials into the cause, and the Morses began receiving a polite barrage of information extolling the virtues of the city as a tourist mecca with a beautiful climate. The Morses thawed a bit when they were persuaded to visit in April and found an appealing waterfront site for the museum.

Still, they favored Denver, where they were hoping to build a new museum funded by the state Legislature. They also preferred Austin, where the collection would reside in the beautiful galleries in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.

To the Morses' infuriated surprise (Morse was a Colorado native) and despite lobbying efforts by the governor, the Colorado Legislature refused funding.

In Austin, things didn't go well, either. The university made a serious gaffe when the Morses visited, which coincided with one from Mari Michener, who with her famous husband had earlier given an art collection with the stipulation that a certain amount of works be displayed at all times.

The Morses learned she was very upset when she saw much of it had been taken down, and they suspected that the removal had been done to convince them that there was ample wall space for all the Dalís. Fair or not, Eleanor Morse said years later, the Morses' faith in that institution was badly shaken.

So Morse told Martin that if Florida came through with the money, the collection would come to St. Petersburg. The Florida Legislature quickly passed a budget line item of $2 million and the deal was sealed. Work began immediately on refurbishing an old waterfront warehouse at 1000 Third St. S.

In November, just 10 months after Martin made his first call to the Morses, five semitrailers rolled into St. Petersburg with the payload. The museum opened in March 1982.

• • •

It's strange to describe it as such, but the Dalí Museum got a big break seven years later when the artist died at 84.

The museum had succeeded in the Morses' mandate that it be a tourism magnet, but it was given scant respect in the art world. Dalí was a well-known figure, but more as an attention-obsessed eccentric than revered artist.

After his youthful meteoric rise as the leading interpreter of surrealism, Dalí's mid-career reputation had been tarnished by an interest in self-aggrandizement and commercial gain that his peers thought unseemly. Many influential art critics believed his later works were a hash of sentimentalized religious belief and scientific theory. Only after Dalí's death would the world begin to forgive his antics and look seriously at the breadth of his achievements.

The Dalí Museum, with its superb collection, was at the heart of the renaissance, sought as a prominent lender to prestigious international exhibitions and benefiting from the professional relationships. One of the greatest indicators of the museum's new status occurred in 2001 when the Museum of Modern Art in New York agreed to a rare loan of one of its greatest paintings, Dalí's Persistence of Memory (1934), to celebrate the Dalí Museum's 20th anniversary in 2002.

• • •

One would think that the new Dalí Museum is a response to its more elevated position in the art world. Its architecture certainly rises to the Dalí occasion with architect Yann Weymouth's enormous glass feature, called the Enigma, tumbling 75 feet from top to bottom like a giant bubble blown and taken by the breeze off the nearby waterfront.

But it was another, much bigger breeze that was the most compelling catalyst for this building when Hurricane Andrew's howling winds and waters roared through South Florida in 1992. Dalí Museum leaders saw photographs of a landscape laid bare, looked at the boats bobbing in the South Yacht Basin just beyond their building as potential rockets slamming through the walls, and realized no contingency plan for it could ensure the art's safety in the face of a Category 5 storm.

Through the years, tension increased as other hurricanes threatened but never made direct landfall. The search was seriously on for a new location but it would take 12 years to find it.

• • •

A new building became the focus of almost every discussion at board meetings. They explored potential sites but none seemed good enough. Most were too far away from the city's downtown or they were part of a planned development that would dilute the Dalí brand and scholarly autonomy. Its members first decided to renovate the Third Street S facility, but mold and asbestos issues made that option unappealing. Plans were drawn up to build an adjacent gallery and use the existing space only for offices and classrooms. It was an inelegant solution, the best of the worst.

In 2003 a new, though very dim, possibility emerged.

The Bayfront Center Arena, eight blocks north next to the Mahaffey Theater, was aging poorly. Built in 1965, the city-owned venue had once hosted major performers as well as the annual run of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus. It was too outdated to be competitive, even with a major rehab, and the City Council voted to demolish it. The council then voted unanimously in support of a conference center in its place. A consultant was hired to study its feasibility.

A poll of meeting planners revealed that 94 percent of them expressed no need for more meeting rooms downtown.

The poll numbers effectively killed the idea. The door was wide open for a new idea and Dalí leaders stepped through it.

They approached the City Council in May 2004, requesting the site for a new museum. It would be built as a fortress against any major storm.

• • •

And so it is.

The areas containing the art, now valued between $500 million and $700 million, have been tested to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

And the new Dalí was not completed without some political storms during difficult economic times. Its leaders fought vigorously for $5 million from the Tourist Development Council and succeeded only after the Pinellas County Commission extended a tourist tax. The final number was $2.5 million, supplemented by a city grant in the same amount offered by Mayor Bill Foster as an incentive for county cooperation. It also had to fight for $4 million from the state in 2006, which then-Gov. Jeb Bush was reluctant to grant having given the museum $4 million the year before. But he, too, relented.

In for a penny, in for a pound seemed to be the prevailing reasoning, and no one would disagree that the initial $2 million had been a huge bargain for the collection. These new public funds could be considered another investment with big future payoffs for the community.

Private funding has totaled more than $20 million, but it includes $6 million from USF for the old building, which is not considered public money since it was a real property sale. Despite the pride the community seems to take in the museum, significant money didn't follow from the larger community in proportion to the project's scale. Most of the private money has come from longtime patrons.

In the end, though, the money, like everything else, has come through.

• • •

There is no question that the Dalí Museum is the result of many key individuals' hard and dedicated work to bring it to life and greater glory. But it also seems to live under a lucky star in many ways, its place secured despite the random obstacles that crossed its path.

Dalí had a phrase for such luck. "Objective chance" he called it. Essentially, he believed that beyond any rational explanations or logic, some things were meant to be.

The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg is, he might have said, one of those things.

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

Special section

all about the Dalí

Today's Dalí-centric Latitudes section is your guide to the new waterfront Dalí Museum, including a preview of the innovative building and a look at some of the most important works. Also in the section is visitor information for downtown St. Petersburg, including restaurants, hotels and nightlife. Regular Latitudes features will resume Jan. 16. 1L

St. Petersburg's new home for the Dalí collection is the result of persistence ... and destiny. 01/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 11:38pm]

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