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Not investing in Dali Museum would be simply surreal

After word got out recently that the Salvador Dali Museum was asking the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council for $5 million to help complete construction of its new home in downtown St. Petersburg, the TDC postponed making a decision.

Many residents argue the museum should not be given that much money, or any money, during this tough economic stretch. Those who oppose the Dali's request, either in part or in its entirety, are misguided. I hope the TDC soon will see the wisdom of approving the funding.

Yes, I am biased. Since I moved to St. Petersburg in 1994, the Dali Museum has been a familiar presence in my life. It always has been within easy walking distance of my home, and I passed it every day to and from work. After my first visit, on my own without the docent, I became hooked on the merriment of the place. The next time I went, I joined the docent tour. It was a great experience, and I have been a regular since.

In addition to enjoying the art, I go there to buy gifts and souvenirs. In fact, the Dali is my first stop for Christmas and birthday presents. My most memorable gift-related experience was in 2008, when I hosted five Palestinian journalists for the International Council of the Tampa Bay Region of the U.S. Department of State. I gave each journalist a Dali Clock in a Can.

They liked the gift. But as we talked, we realized that I had put them in a tight spot: It could be dicey for Palestinians carrying a clock in a can, even one with Dali's name on it, to clear airport security. We had a good laugh.

When I told my friend, Lucinda Coulter, managing editor of Overdrive magazine, that our tourist council was wary of investing $5 million in the Dali's future, she sent me a quick e-mail reply. I quote it at length because it captures some of the museum's powerful allure:

"In 2003, when my son, Eric, was a high school junior, the two of us made a special trip to Florida to see the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg on the other side of the peninsula.

"Eric was usually impatient when I took him to art museums, but he had done a report on Salvador Dali in the ninth grade and knew about the museum before I did. We took the docent's tour, and Eric was mesmerized. We walked and toured the museum for nearly three hours. When I told him we needed to leave, he didn't want to go.

"Now, he is a first-year graduate student at Florida State University studying physics. For his first away-from-home room, he chose a print of Dali's painting, The Elephants, to adorn a wall. I think that in a world of terrorism and war, of growing uncertainty, Dali is a comfort to youth who are just starting out in all kinds of intellectual pursuits.

"The curators and developers have been faithful to Dali's spirit of irreverence. People talk to one another, sharing stories and wonderment. That doesn't happen in many other museums, such as the Smithsonian and the Art Institute of Chicago, where you can feel isolated."

Founded in 1982 by A. Reynolds Morse and his wife, Eleanor, the museum is a cultural connection to the nation and the rest of the world. It helps make our area more than a place for the usual — sunshine, beaches, boating and fishing.

Bottom line: Attracting 200,000 visitors a year, the Dali Museum accounts for an annual $60 million to the Pinellas economy, according to a 2008-2009 economic impact study.

When the new museum opens, officials expect the number of visitors to double, putting more "heads in beds" and more dollars into the economies of every city in the county. And the building, with its curved glass front, will enhance the aesthetic charm of our already-beautiful waterfront.

In every way, the Salvador Dali Museum — with a collection valued at $500 million — is a safe, long-term investment. For the greater good of the county, the TDC should approve the museum's request.

Not investing in Dali Museum would be simply surreal 01/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 4:40pm]
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