Just like the direction of Salvador Dali's iconic mustache, the new Dali Museum in St. Petersburg is going up. Groundbreaking on the museum's signature new home is scheduled for today, and the good news could not come at a better time. It represents a powerful dose of commitment and optimism, a resolve that St. Petersburg's cultural profile will continue to rise and weather the storm of grim economic news.
But the start of the new museum is also a perfect time to reflect on how kismet and canny can-do combined to bring one of the greatest single-artist collections of the 20th century into our midst, how it made St. Petersburg into a fine arts destination the world over, and how fortunate Tampa Bay is to have it.
St. Petersburg has the Dali collection of Reynolds and Eleanor Morse because Jim Martin, a local lawyer, happened to see a story in the Wall Street Journal headlined U.S. Art World Dillydallies Over Dalis. When other cities and great art museums refused to make sufficient room for the massive collection, Martin thought, why not St. Petersburg? The idea was almost as absurd as, say, Venus de Milo transmuting into a Spanish toreador. But the museum opened in 1982.
The current location was always too small and too vulnerable to hurricanes and storm surges. The new building, about double the size at 66,000 square feet, will be built to withstand a Category 5 storm.
Take a look at the design and what do you see? To some, the fanciful green, geodesic glass bubble wrapped around the concrete box facade is just interesting or attractive. To others, the design by architect Yann Weymouth is a little like the Spanish surrealist himself, representing a vivid and flowing imagination engulfing the staid and predictable. To St. Petersburg residents, the $35-million project should also summon a sense of pride and optimism about the city's long-term future as a cultural center.
The contributions by the current Dali Museum to St. Petersburg's well-being are significant. The museum adds about $50-million annually to the local economy and attracts 200,000 visitors each year, with about 40 percent of those international travelers and 85 percent from outside the region. The museum's educational programs freely host 10,000 area students each year. A traveling Dali Art Mobile brings the artist's work to thousands more.
The new museum is expected to be an even bigger tourist draw, and a new student orientation area, theater and scholars library will enhance its educational mission.
Meanwhile, the same care and fiscal discipline that the museum's trustees and administrators have brought to its current operations — the museum is profitable without public subsidies — have been brought to the new museum project. All but $9-million has already been raised, and the $500-per-square-foot construction cost is well within reason. Now the community will be called upon to raise the rest as construction gets under way.
The new museum is expected to be completed in early 2011. As it rises along the downtown waterfront during these difficult economic times, it will be a steady reminder that the community is continuing to invest in the arts and its future.