12 JAN 2011: St. Petersburg is buzzing. In fact, not just St. Petersburg but the entire area has been buzzing for days. The newspapers have been full of stories, the television news can talk of nothing else. Even Susan Sarandon was in town chatting it up. What’s the fuss all about - more than a decade after it was conceived, and just a year after it broke ground, Dalí Museum executive director Hank Hine stood in front of an enthusiastic crowd outside the new US$36 million building and said simply, "Welcome."
The ceremony began at precisely 11:11 echoing the date 01-11-11 (or 11-01-11) with everyone from Spanish royalty to an eerily Dali-like impersonator enjoying the festive atmosphere and the general feeling of good will.
Rising above the crowd the concrete block of the new museum wrapped within a geodesic coil of shimmering blue glass and steel called “The Enigma,” almost stole the show from the magnificent contents of its galleries.
The day was sunny but cool, and while the speeches went on a trifle longer than perhaps the crowd really hoped for, it is true that this was a team effort and it was only fair that the members of the team over the years be acknowledged.
Finally Her Royal Highness la Infanta Cristina of Spain, Duchess of Palma de Mallorca rose to speak and the crowd became riveted again until they erupted in applause as she cut the ribbon at precisely 12:12.
I had been fortunate to tour the building a day earlier and spend some time with Dr. Hine, the chief designer and architect Yann Weymouth, Dale Mize who was in charge of the building and construction and Joan Kropf the deputy director and chief curator of the Dali.
To enter the building one must cross a short bridge - physically and symbolically crossing into a new world of art and beauty. On one side is a grotto, on the other a “living wall” alive with the flora of Florida.
Enter the doors, says Hine, and you are in (dramatic pause) “the store.” He grinned at the laughter, saying that he had read “shopping is the last communal activity in America.”
Every item in the store is carefully chosen and based on Dali’s work. Each comes with a provenance card explaining its origin.
The building is divided into three floors. The first floor houses the store, the ticket counter, the Gala Cafe – named after Dali’s wife and muse, and a 96 seat theatre.
The second floor is a working area containing offices, “mechanicals” and an archival library.
The third floor contains the treasures.
An elliptical concrete and steel staircase joins the first and third floor – and when the actual stairs stop, the structure seemingly, magically, continues its climb to the Enigma above.
While elegant, the staircase also could appear fragile, which prompted a question as to stability. Weymouth said they tested it for the weight and stress of three rugby teams simultaneously dancing to disco music. It held. It’s tough.
For those not inclined, or not able, to undertake the (easy) climb three high speed elevators will whisk you to your floor.
Yann Weymouth explained that there are 1,062 of these pieces of glass in the Enigma, “and not one's like another. They are all unique and different in shape. So it becomes a puzzle."
Each piece is unique and was computerized and bar coded for tracking, shipping and assembly.
Weymouth was determined to maximize the glass and minimize the steel in the structure (for reasons both aesthetic and budgetary) and he succeeded – though at one time the grounds outside the building were covered with hundreds and hundreds of pieces of glass awaiting assembly. A process, by the way, that took over five and a half months. Now installed, the Enigma will withstand a category five hurricane. Hurricanes are also the reason the art is housed on the third floor – well above flood levels.
In the old Dali Museum the large masterworks were all hung in the one gallery. It was an almost overpowering experience and the viewer was awestruck at the size and complexity of the work.
Here the masterworks are strategically placed, some in alcoves. The lighting is soft, and almost unheard of in a gallery or museum, there are skylights positioned to allow the work to be viewed in natural light. Weymouth is a master at museum architecture and is particularly proud at this accomplishment.
The large masterworks I found, viewed better in the new surroundings. Individually they can be explored up close, or observed from differing distances and angles. Ultimately there is more intimacy in the relationship of viewer to painting.
The paintings large and small are grouped logically to allow the viewer to follow a progression of Dali’s work.
Also on the third floor, a second gallery displays a selection of Dali works in other media along with films and work inspired by Dali. This is a large open space that can be used for performance art and a variety of other work.
The 2100 works (96 oil paintings) in the collection are considered one of the most significant Dali collections in the world. They were collected primarily by Reynolds and Eleanor Morse who acquired the works over a thirty year period beginning in the forties. During that time they also developed a friendship with Salvador and Gala Dali.
When the Morses decided to donate their collection to a museum, they stipulated that it be kept together. As the art world “dillydallied over Dali” according to a Wall Street Journal headline, a young St. Petersburg lawyer James Martin (who was on hand yesterday) read the article and decided the Dali collection should come to his city and he spearheaded an effort to make that happen.
When the Dali outgrew its space, a collaboration between the private and public sector raised the US$36 million it took to build the new museum.
Now, there is little doubt that the new Dali will become the iconic image that defines St. Petersburg.
And, what is astonishing, is that in this relatively small city and surrounding area, the art and culture available are absolutely outstanding.
Just a few blocks from the Dali is the Chihuly Museum, housing the works of famed glass artist and sculptor Dale Chihuly. Between those two museums is the Museum of Fine Art, and across the grass plaza from the Dali is the Mahaffey Theatre. Up the road in Sarasota is the Ringling Museum which houses an enviable collection of Baroque and Asian art. And that’s not counting the numerous private galleries showing the works of excellent artists - local and otherwise.
Looking for a cultural holiday. Put St. Petersburg on your list.