Dali's Long and Twisted Road to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG (2011-1-18) -

A geodesic glass dome called "The Enigma" bubbles from the concrete skin of the new Salvador Dali Museum, which holds the largest collection of the artist's works this side of his native Spain. It's been a long and twisted road that led the Dali collection from Cleveland to St. Petersburg.

The Florida Orchestra Brass Quintet plays to the crowd - after a "surrealistic procession" strolls the half-mile from the old Dali Museum to the new. There's a man wearing a giant snail helmet, a woman doubling as a black sail from a clipper ship, and dozens of people sporting curlicue mustaches, a la Salvador Dali.

This wasn't your ordinary museum opening. Then again, "ordinary" isn't a word usually associated with the surrealistic master.

At exactly 11:11 a.m. on January 11th, Museum director Hank Hine gives them the greeting they've been waiting for: "Welcome to the grand opening of the new Dali Museum!"

Then, the most extensive collection of Dali in the New World became complete.

"It is my great pleasure that I present to the state of Florida under the care of the museum's board of trustees the remainder of my parent's collection for the enjoyment of the state's - and the world's - citizens," says Brad Morse.

And with that, Morse handed over the final two paintings in his parent's original collection. His parents gave their Dalis to St. Petersburg - but only after they agreed to build a museum.

Reynolds Morse, a machinery designer in Cleveland and his wife, Eleanor, acquired their first Dali work in 1942. "Daddy Longlegs of the Evening - Hope," a melting vision of music, man and war - is the first thing you'll see entering the third-floor gallery.

Reynolds Morse died in 2000, and Eleanor died in July. The museum's website includes a recording where she talks about their initial encounter with Dali.

"In 1942, we bought this painting. Today, it's not surprising to us, because we're used to many shocking things," she says. "But imagine the impact this painting had on people in 1942 - especially on my father. When we brought it home to Cleveland, he thought we had taken leave of our senses, and he was very afraid that he'd have to support us if we wasted all our money on such foolish art."

Over the years, they collected work after work of this "foolish art." Because of the Morse's prescient appreciation for this surrealistic upstart, Tampa Bay residents are able to view what is heralded by many as the finest museum in the Southeast.

And it would have never happened if St. Petersburg lawyer Jim Martin hadn't seen an article in the Wall Street Journal 30 years ago. He read the clip at last week's opening ceremonies.

"Cleveland, January 18, 1980. Reynolds Morse, a machinery designer in this city, is a bit disenchanted with the art world," reads Martin. "At a time when a painting can fetch $300,000 dollars, he cannot find any takers for his multi-million-dollar collection of Salvador Dali art. His offer seems more than reasonable - all a museum needs to do is to provide a permanent home and agree to keep the collection all together, and Mr. Morse will hand over the collection free of charge. I thought that was interesting."

So after several tries, Martin got through to Morse and pitched his idea to bring Dali to St. Petersburg. At the time, it was a city known more for its green benches and retirees than surrealist art.

Before his vision could be realized, it took several years of cajoling private donors. Finally, St. Petersburg and the state agreed to renovate an old marine warehouse on the waterfront.

It was never a perfect home for the collection. It was small. There were problems with mold. And the hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 made it seem awfully vulnerable in its bayside location.

So Dali supporters like Hine began a decade-long effort to build a new museum - prying money from both deep-pocketed local donors and government sources.

"We started out against huge odds. In the end, the city and the county closed the last bit of money that we needed, but it's been an uphill climb the whole way," says Hine. "And having started it in a really down economic period - one that we're - as everyone knows - not free from yet, we were ambitious and we were optimistic to begin it."

St. Petersburg gave a 99-year lease on the prime real estate that used to be the site of the Bayfront Arena. The city and Pinellas County then added the final $5 million after their fundraising fell a bit short. The state chipped in another $8 million. Hine says the cultural investment pays many dividends.

"I know that it's always hard to get money for the arts. And that it's a constant struggle," Hine says. "It's all of our obligations - not just people who are professionally in the arts, but people who loved them and have been moved and changed by them, to always advocate that our government value it."

The value of the arts in public life was realized long ago by Reynolds Morse. Here's what he said in a documentary filmed when the original museum opened nearly 30 years ago:

"One of the things I learned early on is that Dali was Dali, and no one could steal his thunder," says Reynolds Morse. "You cannot out-Dali Dali, and we've watched people over the years think they can do it better than Dali. But that's not true. You cannot do it. He was a genius and he was making his own image. He knew what he was doing."

And because of his gift, Tampa Bay residents can decide if it's genius or not they're seeing - for themselves.

Soundslides

Dali Museum
Click on the above title to see - and hear - a walk-through tour of the new Dali Museum.
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