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Big crowds, big names, visit new Dalí

ST. PETERSBURG — Even those who work there sometimes can't believe the buzz surrounding the new Salvador Dalí Museum.

On Tuesday, the museum's deputy director, Kathy White, was on the phone with a reporter explaining how the Dalí had shattered its attendance record in the last two months. Then she gasped.

"Oh, my, Jeff Koons just walked in," she whispered.

That would be Jeffrey Koons, the American artist whose work fetches prices north of $20 million and can be found in some of the most exclusive collections in the world. He visited the Dalí Tuesday with his family to peruse paintings that have influenced his work.

Koons was just the latest proof of the global pull the Dalí's new $36 million museum has had since opening Jan. 11 along the city's waterfront, a mere six blocks away from its old home on Third Street S.

It's not that museum officials didn't expect big crowds. They did, estimating that the new digs would attract 400,000 visitors in its first year, double the museum's average annual attendance.

But on March 18, the museum hit the 100,000 attendance mark, a pace that, if it continues, would put it ahead of projections by 50 percent.

"Our goal was to double attendance," White said. "But we're ahead of that. Everyone's feeling excited and pleased. It's been exhausting and exhilarating."

The weekend's Grand Prix race dampened attendance, she said. And the concrete barriers and construction pylons from the race still block the entrance to the museum. But visitors keep coming.

"We didn't have trouble making our way here. We just followed the signs," said Claude Roy, who came with his wife, Violet, from Montreal. "The architecture is so nice. We really enjoyed it."

That Dalí appeals to an international audience is what has hotel operators hoping the museum can soften a slump in global tourism.

"Our international numbers are down," said Keith Overton, president of TradeWinds Island Resorts. "Dalí is pretty well known in Europe, so who knows? We need an international boost big time."

Overton said the impact of the Dalí has already been obvious since mid January, where his hotel has sold 200 packages that include Dalí tickets.

"We'll take it," he said.

The pace at the museum may slow once the summer heat arrives, but Cindy Cockburn, the museum's spokeswoman, said she expects the crowds to persist.

They're coming partly because of an ambitious public relations effort. For the past three years, museum representatives and state and local tourism officials have flown to New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, and London to meet with media executives to stoke interest.

Recent articles or mentions of the new Dalí have run in a wide variety of national, international and local publications, including Conde Nast Traveler, Marie Claire, W, Southern Living, Modern Bride, the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, London Times and USA Today.

All that attention helped spread the word to visitors like Judy Williams of Nashville.

"I read about it somewhere," Williams said. "I don't know where exactly, but I'm here now."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Big crowds, big names, visit new Dalí 03/29/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 12:03pm]
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