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Hello Dali! Florida gets surreal with new museum

The concrete Florida building may not stand out as a surreal playground, but geodesic glass and a melted watch draped over a twisted bench are sure signs of a museum housing the largest Salvador Dali collection outside his native Spain.

Since moving to sprawling new digs in this US coastal resort city in January, the Dali Museum has been pitching the artist’s fantastical images and objects to tourists more focused on the Sunshine State’s theme parks and aquariums than on art.

It seems to be working. Since the new facility opened nine months ago, some 213,000 people have ventured through its doors — a 50-percent increase in traffic.

“It’s quite positive for us,” museum deputy director Kathy White told AFP.

“We know a lot of people come to this area for the beaches and theme parks, but this is another option for tourists, with organized activities for children and the community,” she added.

The museum — less than two hours by car from Orlando, capital of the Disney amusement empire, Universal theme parks, Sea World and other parks — includes 96 oil paintings and some 2,000 objects from Dali’s career as the 20th century art world’s resident eccentric.

And while it can’t match Disney on the pure adrenaline front for children, the museum offers several opportunities for little ones to “dillydally with Dali,” as the curators describe it.

While a prominent characteristic of the $36 million structure is its ability to withstand the punishing hurricanes that frequently batter the Florida coast, the architecture incorporates elements of the weird and wonderful that marked Dali’s work.

Designed by architect Yann Weymouth, who helped I.M. Pei create the famed glass pyramid of the Louvre in Paris, the museum features a pair of geodesic glass bulges protruding from the building.

The “Glass Enigma,” as it’s called, is comprised of about 1,000 glass triangles that allow visitors a panoramic view of Tampa Bay, reminiscent of Dali’s retreat in Cadaques, perched above the Mediterranean Sea.

To help recreate the feel of the Spanish Catalonian village where Dali spent many summers, the museum’s garden features Mediterranean-style rock formations and a hedge labyrinth.

Inside is a playful spiraling staircase to nowhere, a tribute to Dali’s fascination with the double helix structure of DNA.

The museum has a stunningly comprehensive array of Dali artwork, from self-portraits and still-life drawings to sculptures and his larger paintings — all in a seaside resort known more for the white-sand beaches nearby.

And while it may not possess what is perhaps Dali’s most recognizable work, 1931’s “The Persistence of Memory,” whose melting clocks became a pop-culture reference point, it does own “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory” from the early 1950s, a reinterpretation of the masterpiece.

The museum is about twice the size of its predecessor, a humbler facility that opened in 1982 a stone’s throw from the current location.

The works are from the collection of Eleanor and A. Reynolds Morse, who met Dali at a New York cocktail party in 1943, a year after the American couple married. They quickly purchased their first Dali painting, “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening, Hope!” and a collection was born.

Over a four-decade friendship the couple frequently visited the artist and his wife Gala at their villa in Spain, and they constantly helped promote Dali’s artwork in American bohemian circles. (Dali died in 1989 at age 84.)

The Morses eventually built a small Dali museum in 1971 in their hometown of Beachwood, Ohio, and the opening was attended by Dali himself. But public interest was intense, and they outgrew the space.

After a futile nationwide search for a museum that would preserve the historic integrity of the collection, they opted to build a new museum in St. Petersburg.

They chose the spot in part because the environment on the Gulf coast was reminiscent of the Mediterranean, but also because a quick-thinking attorney in St. Petersburg in 1980 learned that the fate of the Dali collection hung in the balance and began a movement to raise state and public funding for the museum.