Today, the next chapter in one of Tampa Bay's most improbable art stories begins when the new Dalí Museum on St. Petersburg's waterfront opens to the public. It is a grand home befitting the surrealist — and the world's second largest collection of his work.
The innovative building is full of architectural nods to Dalí's many curiosities and muses, sure to delight Dalí devotees. But it is also a provocative counterpoint to the neighboring Mahaffey Theater, a visual testament to the city's diversity of arts offerings.
The three-story box, solid and practical, is embellished by a visually-arresting 75-foot glass sculpture nicknamed the Glass Enigma by architect Yann Weymouth, who says it evokes a giant drop of water. The glass structure brings light and eccentric shape into the interior of the museum while paying homage to Buckminster Fuller, the inventor and designer who inspired Dalí.
Inside, a freestanding spiral staircase evocative of the DNA helix — a shape that fascinated Dalí — transports a visitor to the third floor, which safely houses the museum's spectacular collection of about 2,140 of the artist's works worth somewhere between $500 million and $700 million. For the first time, there is room to exhibit all 96 paintings in the museum's permanent collection.
At 66,450 square feet, the museum is more than twice the size of the old building, a former warehouse far from hurricane worthy just eight blocks away. The new structure is built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, with 18-inch-thick walls.
It is difficult in any economy for a not-for-profit to find the money for an undertaking like this. And Dalí Museum leaders were uniquely challenged to raise money during what would become the worst economic downturn since the Depression.
But just as it took perseverance, vision and a touch of kismet to bring the Dalí collection to St. Petersburg back in 1982, that same combination was necessary to create the new $36 million structure. Museum leaders worked with public officials to find the perfect site, raise the funds and employ uniquely talented designers and builders.
The museum was built with more than $20 million in private funds — including $6 million realized by selling the former site to the University of South Florida. Taxpayers also chipped in with $8 million from the state and a desperately needed last-minute commitment by both Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg of $2.5 million each — a reasonable recognition that a new museum of such international recognition will also mean more tourists for the local economy.
Just as Dalí's surrealist art required extraordinary craftsmanship and imagination, so did this project. Once again, Tampa Bay has proved itself a worthy steward to this extraordinary collection.