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Work under way on permanent St. Petersburg home for Chihuly's glass

ST. PETERSBURG

Amid so much economic uncertainty, one thing's for sure: The Chihuly Collection will come to the Arts Center in St. Petersburg several months after we ring in 2010.

The glass artist himself, one of the most well-known and beloved in the world, wielded a ceremonial shovel with Arts Center leaders Friday as an excavator began clawing through the walls of an old building next to the center at 719 Central Ave. that will be the collection's home. Also in the space will be a glassblowing hot shop outfitted with stadium seating, a gift shop and the Bank of America children's learning center.

The surety of the project's completion comes, says board president Terry Brett, from having all $12-million needed to build it in hand, including an $8-million gift from philanthropist Beth Ann Morean.

"It will pay for all the bricks and mortar," he said, "though other enhancements may have to wait."

Tabled for now are the more ambitious plans for a complete makeover of the current facility, labeled as Phases Two and Three, that will expand gallery space and classrooms and add a parking garage.

But the Arts Center is smart in moving forward with this part. The Chihuly Collection, the first exhibition space in the world devoted to a permanent survey of his works, will draw many visitors and raise a lot of money to fund continued growth. Arts Center leaders stop short of calling it a museum since, as Brett says, "there are a lot of issues in having that status," but Dale Chihuly, 67, referred to it as a museum in his remarks at the ceremony.

The Chihuly Collection will have most components of traditional museums. It will have a director, Marshall Rousseau, who is the director emeritus of the Salvador Dali Museum. It will have a permanent collection. It will have rotating special exhibitions of other fine glass artists. And it will charge admission.

The Chihuly Collection will take up about 11,000 of the 27,000 square feet of new space but how it all will be configured is undecided.

Chihuly told the several hundred people gathered for the ceremony, "I don't know what we'll build but I promise you it will be something wonderful."

In an interview later, he talked about possibilities for the permanent collection and new ideas he is exploring in his art.

You are well known for your attention to installations, planning particular works for specific spaces. Your museum at the Arts Center will be the first permanent place for a comprehensive group of them.

Actually, that's true.

Do you feel there are installations you must have here, that the public will expect and want, sort of like Tony Bennett having to sing I Left My Heart in Francisco whenever he performs?

(Laughing) Right now I have 11 galleries at the de Young (Museum in San Francisco, site of a large temporary exhibition of his works that is drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors), and even there I didn't have room for an example of everything I do. But I'm interested in doing an exhibition so people can move from one type of installation to another.

In choosing from your towers, chandeliers, walls, ceilings, Macchia Forests (vividly colored vessels arranged in dense groupings) and so many other categories of installations, do you have a sense of what might be here?

We're just beginning to close in on a final design and really start to figure out what we'll do. And that will probably change. I expect we'll have a chandelier or two, probably have a Macchia Forest, for sure a drawing wall (on which large studies for his works are displayed). Another thing is the boats (filled with glass forms). I like Venetian pieces on shelves on a wall.

One installation at the de Young is a room from my studio with my collection of American Indian baskets. They're with a group I call Tabac Baskets. We made about 100 of them. I also have in that gallery my collection of Pendleton blankets. They're in so many colors; they would even use pink in them.

I've seen photographs of that gallery. I love the combination of real baskets with your clear glass vessels colored like baskets. And that long table is wonderful.

That's the table in my studio and the Tabac Baskets are on the table, same as in my studio. I didn't know if that would work; I didn't want to seem like I was being too personal.

You have some other new iterations in the de Young exhibition. I'm thinking specifically of your "forest," with glass that seems lit from within.

It's done in neon. I haven't used it in my work since 1971 or '72. And I'm using black Plexiglas sometimes as a base for the art.

You also have a new glass series using black.

The black series is different. Black changes your work considerably. It's not transparent. The great thing about glass, what people love the most about it, is that it's transparent. So all the pieces have a lot of color against the black.

So they're more reflective than transparent?

No, black glass isn't reflective. I'm using the black Plexiglas for that.

Among your most popular installations are those in gardens where you put your sculptures and pieces of glass among living plants. I noticed at the de Young you have an installation that mimics the garden itself using only glass. It resembles one of those perennial borders in the great English gardens.

My mother had a fabulous garden. It was the most important thing to her after her family. I didn't really care about gardening but I loved the way it looked. It (the border at the de Young) is new. Who knows what more we'll do with it?

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

Work under way on permanent St. Petersburg home for Chihuly's glass 10/04/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 4, 2008 4:30am]

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