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Dali museum centerpiece of arts-filled Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Dali, Chihuly and Degas?

It’s possible to see all three in one weekend in the Tampa Bay area — and still have time to savor the beach. The opening of the new Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg this January is the latest in a string of splashy arts venues on Florida’s west coast. The $33 million Tampa Museum of Art — soon to host a Degas show — opened in February of 2010. And the Chihuly Collection, a permanent gallery devoted to the vibrant glassworks of Washington artist Dale Chihuly, was unveiled across the bay in St. Petersburg in July.

Add these to the 2008 renovation and expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, and the area has suddenly become much more than a side trip from Orlando to see Busch Gardens or spring training ball games. Instead, it’s now an arts destination in its own right.

Most visitors will be drawn to the area by the new Dali museum, a $36-million building that features a stunning collection of Dali’s works. It replaces the old Dali Museum, more than doubling the exhibition space for what is considered the world’s most comprehensive collection of the Surrealist master’s work — even surpassing the Dali Theatre and Museum in Figueres, Spain.

The building itself is a treasure. It’s in downtown St. Petersburg, across the street from a marina and overlooking Tampa Bay. The sleek concrete building is graced by the “Glass Enigma,” a wave of glass paneling that undulates around the building and shifts hue and color with the Florida sunshine. Architect Yann Weymouth, who had a hand in creating the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, designed the new museum.

Just stepping inside the museum is a surreal experience. Visitors enter through the gift shop and often return after touring the gallery, since every item is tied in some way to Dali’s work, from the ant-themed T-shirts to the melting wristwatches. Dali would have wanted it that way; he was an intense self-promoter.

Tickets can be purchased at a counter in a grand hallway. It is worth spending a few minutes contemplating the tall, helix-like concrete spiral staircase that stretches from the ticket counter to the third floor. (Dali was fascinated by spiral forms and DNA, hence the staircase’s design).

Pause to snack on some Spanish tapas or a glass of wine at the cafe on the first floor and gaze at the “Glass Enigma” from the inside. It is comprised of 900 different triangles — none of which are alike — and stretches from the floor to the ceiling. Then walk up the spiral staircase to the third floor — pause again to look out the wave of glass, this time to savor the waves of Tampa Bay — before entering the galleries.

While the Dali Museum is likely to be the starring attraction of any arts-themed trip here, the other arts venues are worth noting. Don’t miss “Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier” at the Chihuly Collection, which also offers studio edition glass for purchase. The Chihuly Collection is presented by the Morean Arts Center, which has a separate venue a mile away. There you’ll find art classes, exhibitions and workshops, including a glass studio and hot shop where you can watch artists create glassworks.

If you’re visiting later this year, the Tampa Museum of Art will host a Degas exhibit with sculptures and paintings, March 12-June 19, in addition to its collection of American modernist and realist works. At the Museum of Fine Arts, an exhibit called “Romantics to Moderns,” scheduled to open Jan. 22, offers watercolors and drawings by British artists from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. And at the Crislip Arcade, artists rent nooks and studio spaces and sell their works in what was once a rundown building. You’re likely to find a fun gift amid the jewelry, photography, paintings and other handmade items.

If you’re spending more than a weekend in the area, drive an hour south to Sarasota and check out the Ringling Museum of Art, a 30-room mansion and the location of an impressive Rubens collection, among other works. It was all gathered by circus founder John Ringling.

Dali had no connection to St. Petersburg, and the museum’s collection of 100 of his works ended up there almost by accident. The pieces were acquired by A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse of Ohio — much to the surprise of their staid Midwestern friends and family — beginning with their first Dali purchase in 1942, a painting titled “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening-Hope!”

The couple became so enamored of Dali and his style that they eventually befriended the artist and his wife, Gala. Later they started looking for a home for the collection. A. Reynolds Morse was willing to donate the works for free to any venue that would keep them together, and a St. Petersburg lawyer, Jim Martin, who read about the collection in a newspaper article, suggested St. Pete. The original museum was built in 1980.

The works were rotated in and out of storage at the old museum but the new site has room for all the Morses’ Dalis to be on display, along with temporary exhibits by students and other Surrealist artists.

The collection also shows that Dali wasn’t always a trippy Surrealist painter. The museum chronicles his beginnings as a classically trained artist who painted still lifes of bread and soft landscapes of his Spanish hometown, his evolution into the world of Surrealism, and his later, religious-themed paintings. And while the museum keeps his legacy alive, it also draws art-lovers to a place Dali never visited — St. Petersburg.