Dalí and TMA: Watercolors

How two museums redefine our experience of urban waterfronts.

click to enlarge ERECTOR SET: Metal, glass and sky at play on the exterior of the Tampa Museum of Art. - jamesostrand.com
ERECTOR SET: Metal, glass and sky at play on the exterior of the Tampa Museum of Art.

Two years ago our area’s art scene gave birth to two museum buildings as different as they could be. Both the Tampa Museum of Art and The Dalí have had time to settle into their surroundings, and I wanted to take a look at how they’re holding up, design-wise.

Neither gestation was simple. After pressure from Mayor Pam Iorio, the Tampa Museum of Art’s original architect, Rafael Vinoly, was ultimately replaced by Stanley Saitowitz, and the location changed four times in a process which began in 1998 and finished with a ribbon-cutting in 2010.

The Dali’s process was similarly non-linear. The project of adding on to the warehouse which originally housed the collection was swept aside and a search for a new site was undertaken, with Mayor Rick Baker pushing the deal through. Museum Director Hank Hine said that a waterfront location, which referred back to Dali’s childhood home on Spain’s coast, was a requirement.

There’s a huge opportunity and problem with siting a museum on the water in Florida. Killer views, true, but no one wants their art work to be ruined by a hurricane. Both museums have taken fine advantage of their glamorous water vistas, playing to the sunsets while protecting their collections with thick walls and hardened storage.

Each museum was designed to meet a different need.

Todd Smith, executive director of the Tampa Museum of Art, explains, “We are putting our efforts into expanding our special exhibition offerings, hosting shows from around the world, that would not have been possible to do in our former space. The flexibility of the galleries allows for exhibits to vary from video installations to sculpture, furniture design or photography.”

The Dalí’s collection is its raison d’être. Given the large number of works that the Morses donated to the City of St. Petersburg, which forms the core of the collection, and the prohibitive cost of acquiring anything new, the entire focus of the museum is this individual artist and these particular paintings. The staff has been extraordinarily imaginative in their interpretation of all the ways that Dalí’s life, with its varied obsessions, can be expressed in architecture and landscape design.

Located adjacent to the Mahaffey Theater with its unmemorable Edward Durrell Stone-like facade, the Dalí is a dramatic building. The rough concrete of its three-story rectangular treasure box is pierced with geodesic triangles of blue-green glass, enveloping its eastern and northern sides in an oozing Enigma (that’s what it’s called by the architects, Yann Weymouth and HOK; it’s also the name of a 1929 Dalí painting). The building is dramatic in daylight, but at night it’s hallucinogenic.

The most arresting feature of the interior is the three-story free-standing helical staircase. Dalí was obsessed with DNA, believing it to be a bridge between science and spirit. The elegant shape of the helix inspired the staircase, which took 10 subsequent pourings of concrete over rebar to form. Walking up the stairway really does take your breath away when you round the curve to the south and the vast windows reveal the sailboats and bay.

From the podicarpus maze to the wish tree, a gracefully droopy ficus covered with colorful slips of paper containing written wishes from visitors, to the rocks which echo the severe landscape of his native Catalonia, the outdoor area is aptly named the Avant-gardens. The gardens express Dalí’s obsession with mathematics in the Fibonacci sequence embedded in the paving and the geometric structure of the labyrinth. The selection of cypress and olive trees reflects the artist’s Mediterranean roots. Golden, crated rocks taken from Lake Okeechobee are liberally placed throughout the garden, referring to the central role rocks play in Dalí’s paintings. He loved landscapes — with a twist.

Visiting the Dalí is a delightful mini-vacation from reality. There are more surprises both in and out of the museum than I have space to mention, so go and discover them for yourself.

Tampa Museum of Art’s strongest architectural feature is the broad 40-foot overhang which graces its southern facade. Giving visitors protection from the elements and framing a dramatic view of the University of Tampa’s minarets, the overhang sets the museum visitor up for a dramatic sense of arrival.

The open, high lobby space is begging for artwork — and so are we. Saitowitz combined very cool materials, perforated metal (reminiscent of an Erector Set), glass, and smooth concrete to create a light, open free space for the first floor. As you ascend the free-standing staircase, you are afforded a great sense of expansiveness. The second-floor balcony which directly faces the river is best enjoyed when sculpture gives you a reason beyond curiosity to venture out. The museum wins the Quirkiest Elevator Award with day-glo intensity chartreuse and yellow waking you up as you travel.

Curtis Hixon Park, with its myriad festivals, fountains, playground and dog park, energizes the Tampa Museum of Art outside its front door, providing a frenzied contrast to the calm within. The Hillsborough River and UT views are lovely, and sitting on the balcony at the Sono Cafe is a delight.

My favorite artwork in the museum’s collection is “Sky” by Leo Villareal, seen in the permanent installation of exterior lights on its southern facade. The lyrical beauty of this piece is sophisticated and engaging. It feels like Debussy, in sharp contrast to the chopsticks being played by the bridge lighting up and down the river.

The Tampa Museum of Art is evolving as each exhibition gets stronger and it reaches outward to the community. It is not stuffy; you don’t have to genuflect when you cross the threshold. It is an oasis on the Hillsborough River, offering imagery for our psyches and gelato for our gratification.

In the swath of ordinariness that envelops so much of Tampa Bay, both museums have given their respective cities iconic buildings to proudly claim. At night, lighting creates dramatic animations, allowing the museums to expand their personalities beyond the confines of their walls. The memorable imagery adds to our experience of the two urban waterfronts.

Great buildings transform and define cities. We need more.

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