Hello, Dalí!

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click to enlarge The spiral staircase at the center of the museum's lobby. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
The spiral staircase at the center of the museum's lobby.

It's a chilly December morning when I meet Van Phrasavath, a member of the architectural team that designed the new Dalí Museum, for a tour of the museum's swanky new home. The sleek building and its surroundings offer a postcard-worthy picture of St. Petersburg, complete with sunshine glinting off a waterfront filled with tethered boats and palm fronds rustling in the breeze. Though a bit too windswept on this particular morning, the Lincoln Center-esque plaza between the museum and its next-door neighbor, the Mahaffey Theater, will make a great picnic spot with the arrival of spring (aka February).

Outside the Dalí, a museum devoted to the most famous Surrealist artist ever to live — no hard feelings, Man Ray — chunks of limerock sourced from a quarry near Ocala dot the landscape in an effort to evoke the rocky shores of coastal Spain where Salvador Dalí lived throughout his life. Combined with a garden of tropical plants and a walkable labyrinth, the museum's exotic exterior hopes to put visitors in a Dalí state of mind. But if the flora doesn't persuade you, there is the small matter of a giant glass blob that appears to ooze out of the concrete building — an architectural calling card that is, like the museum's namesake, formidably wacky without being cheesy.

"We didn't want it to be too thematic, too Disney," Phrasavath says of the building.

On Tuesday — that's 1.11.11 — the new Dalí Museum makes its public debut. Somewhat tucked away between Alfred Whitted Airport and the Mahaffey on downtown St. Pete's waterfront, the museum's construction has proceeded quietly over the past two years as other Bay area institutions like the Chihuly Collection and the Tampa Museum of Art have opened to great fanfare. Now that the Dalí's big day is here, the 66,450-square-foot museum at the foot of Beach Drive is ready for its own moment in the spotlight.

Never a museum inclined to excessive sobriety, the Dalí is pulling out all the stops for its opening week. [CL was there for the festivities: Follow the links to read about Editor David Warner's interview with Susan Sarandon during a special members' event, and see photos of the surreal procession on 1.11.11.] For starters, each of the 95 oil paintings by Salvador Dalí that the museum owns will be on view, giving visitors a chance to ogle Dalí's cryptic paintings and dream-like imagery as never before. On Tuesday, Infanta Christina of Spain, the younger daughter of that country's reigning monarchs, cuts the ceremonial ribbon following a community parade from the old to the new museum. And throughout the week, the winning entries of a surreal photo competition judged by John Waters will be on display.

For longtime St. Pete residents like Phrasavath, who grew up in the 'burg and attended the respected visual arts program at Gibbs High School, the museum's changing identity is a reflection of the evolution of St. Pete, and Tampa Bay more generally, as a cultural community. On our tour, we head inside the building and ascend the helical staircase at the center of the museum's lobby — in a tribute to Dalí's fascination with optical illusions and the double helix of DNA, the concrete spiral appears to swirl upward endlessly toward the glass roof overhead — reminiscing about the old Dalí, which both of us visited as kids.

"I grew up with it," Phrasavath says. "To have the opposite perspective, to be part of the new design, was very fulfilling."

In a room off a corridor inside the museum, assistant curator Dirk Armstrong — another longtime resident of the 'burg who happens to be a childhood friend of Phrasavath's — reframes a painting. It's a small landscape by Dalí of waterfront Cadaqués, the coastal Spanish town where the artist regularly spent time in his youth, rendered in the style of Impressionism. The back of the canvas reads 1918-19, years when Dalí would have been a teenager of 14 or 15. Placing the painting in its new frame, Armstrong shows off the old frame, hand-built by Reynolds Morse, the art collector whose penchant for Dalí's works — shared by his wife Eleanor — laid the foundation for the museum.

Armstrong leads the way to the museum's new vault along the same corridor. The vault knows the curator, who has worked at the Dalí for 18 years, by his thumb; a biometric scanner next to the door checks for the right fingerprint and the right body temperature.

"It can't be my dead hand," Armstrong jokes, opening the door.

Inside, the vault holds works by Dalí from a collection that spans the artist's prolific life — from early paintings like the Cadaqués landscape to later, large-scale Surrealist masterpieces like The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1968-70), sculptures (including the lobster telephone), prints, drawings, cast glass, films and exhibition posters. With the largest and most comprehensive collection of Dalí's art outside of Europe, the museum gets a call virtually any time another museum in the U.S. wants to organize a show of the artist's work. Though a handful of institutions in the U.S. own a piece or two — e.g., the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which owns The Persistence of Memory, the painting famous for depicting a series of melting pocket watches (the Dalí owns a similar painting, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory) — no one except the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí in Figueres, Spain, has an inventory like the St. Pete museum's. With its gallery space doubled (to approximately 15,000 square feet) in the new building, the Dalí plans now to exhibit much more of its collection on a regular basis.

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