Salvador Dali never set foot in this Gulf Coast city where the dominant art form is the watercolor beachscape. But in a strange twist worthy of one of the Spanish surrealist master's paintings, St. Petersburg will soon be home to a new $30 million signature museum to house the world's most comprehensive collection of Dali's work.
St. Petersburg snatched up the private Dali collection in 1982 when more likely locales, such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, balked at its owner's strict conditions. Ohio philanthropists A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse were charmed by the city's eclectic offer of an old boat warehouse to display their collection.
Like a lot of things in Florida these days, a 14-year-old plan to build a more fitting _ and sturdy _ home for the collection was kicked into high gear by the hyperactive hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005.
''Right from the start, it was the safety of the collection that was motivating thinking about this,'' said Hank Hines, the Dali Museum's director. ''The new building has been created to protect the collection. ... It will be engineered to withstand 165 mph winds, which is really the top you can do practically and still have doors.''
Groundbreaking is set for early next year. The new building will open in 2010.
The new Dali museum will be more than a bunker, Hines said. And like its namesake, it will be both practical and eccentric. Preliminary designs call for a tree breaking through one exterior wall, a water fountain shooting from another and a skylight protruding from the roof like a glowing loaf of bread.
Hines said the fountain will do something surprising.
''Maybe there will be pumps that are able to spurt out water that will spell out Dali in the air,'' he said. ''Or it may dribble in an obscene way. We don't know. It will definitely get people wet because it will do something unpredictable.''
On the practical side, the new museum will be bigger, tougher and much more tied in with downtown St. Petersburg than the current location. Curators will be able to seal the artwork behind steel doors if there is a storm. The artwork will also be displayed on the third floor, well above floodwaters.
Preliminary designs call for a 56,000-square-foot building, about 50 percent larger than the current 30,000-square-foot building. Hines said the new space will allow the museum to display more of the 1,400 pieces in its collection and make room for more education programs.
There will also be room for another Daliesque twist _ a larger gift shop.
Visitors will immediately be surrounded by Dali products _ from a $3,000 transparent chair to a $20 Dali doll _ when they walk in the front door.
''He had the reputation of always thinking of how to market his work,'' Hines said of Dali, who died in 1989 at the age of 84. ''He was reviled for that by fellow artists. They thought he was too commercial. He adored that naughty reputation and pushed it to the max.''
The new museum will cost about $30 million. So far, the Dali board has raised $25 million, including $9 million in state and federal grants. Hines said the museum pays back the community by bringing 180,000 out-of-town visitors and pumping $50 million into the local tourism economy.
''I don't believe there is another museum in the state of Florida that's in its class,'' said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.
About 220,000 people a year visit the museum.
''We're a destination because of the singularity and the strength of our collection and also because of the recognizability of Dali,'' Hines said. ''We get a substantial number of people for whom this is their first visit to their museum. ... Art is not part of their experience, but they know that name and they're a little curious.''
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