Founded in 1982 by A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, the Dalí Museum came to St. Petersburg serendipitously. The Ohio philanthropists were avid Dalí collectors and lifelong friends of the artist and his wife and began seeking a permanent home for their collection. A St. Pete’s businessman and city officials invited the Morses to open their museum in Florida. The reluctant Morses attended the meeting and, after seeing that the intended waterfront location closely resembled Dalí’s childhood home in Spain, were convinced it was the perfect location. Since 2011, it has been in its new home on Bayboro Harbor.

The first sentence in the museum’s mission statement reads: “The Salvador Dali Museum shall educate the public and promote understanding, enjoyment and scholarly examination of art through the exhibition of works by Dalí and artists of similar vision.” It is in that spirit that the board of directors embarked on a five-year capital campaign to fund a much larger space, which could not only house their vast collection but also hold special exhibits on contemporary artists carrying on Dalí’s legacy.

As the museum’s executive director, Dr. Hank Hine, explains, there is something for everyone at the new museum, “The first year was absolutely crazy. We reached almost 400,000 visitors, double our numbers in the original facility. It’s now a place where you can spend an afternoon rather than two hours — having a nice meal in the Spanish café, sitting in the waterfront garden, visiting the collection and the special exhibitions.”

The $37 million building is a standalone work of art. Designed by Yann Weymouth of HOK, the structure is part Sarasota modern, with its straight, unadorned rectangular walls, and part phantasmagorical, with a 75-foot tall geodesic glass bubble effervescing from the side of the structure. Called the “enigma,” it is a colossal bow to the dome found on the Dalí Museum in Spain. Inside the museum, with its enormous first floor gift shop and Spanish café, aptly named after Gala, one ascends a helical staircase — with stunning views out the “enigma” onto the bay — to the galleries on the third floor. (An extensive library on Dalí and the Avant-garde is housed on the second floor and beckons international scholars to its holdings.) The design, from inside and out, is said to be reflective of Dalí’s interest in nuclear mysticism and mathematics.

It’s interesting to note the museum’s demographics: the largest age group is 50-to-65-year-olds (it is Florida, after all), but the second largest is people under 25, which is exactly what the museum hoped for — a link to the future. Hine notes, “We set out as our mission to show not only Dalí and Dalí’s circle but also the lineage of the Avant-garde that Dalí initiated and is found around the world by contemporary artists today. Having an edgy contemporary show like the Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project carries his legacy forward.”

Legacy is important to the St. Pete stewards of Dalí’s work. One of the most gratifying offerings of the museum, besides the works themselves, is the team of well-versed, often quirky, Dalí-esque docents. It’s no secret that Dalí’s paintings are enigmatic. From the largest to the smallest, one piece can contain hundreds of illusions and references: religious allegory, geo-political jousting, “intra-uterine” memories, double and triple imagery — the past, present and future melting and reemerging in the hand of the skilled and surreal mind. To view a Dalí is tantamount to entering the interior space of another’s psyche — a journey into the unknown, where one might wish to have Freud or Jung on speed dial for an interpretation or two or three.

Enter the docents. As diverse as the demographics they serve, those who guide us through the Dalí galleries are not your typical docents whose dry snobbery often sends sticky saliva to the lips. With wit and charm and, yes, a slight touch of the enigmatic, the Dalí Museum requires all docents to enroll in a rigorous training program of upper division art history classes coached in 20th century aesthetic movements. Their key to understanding Dalí’s imagery originates with the artist himself, who trained Joan Kropf, the Morses’s colleague. Kropf, who serves as the museum’s deputy director and curator of collections, has in turn passed her knowledge on to the docents entering the program.

Yet, it’s not a memorized script that rolls off the tongue of each interpreter. As Hine explains, “Everyone brings their own biography into their interpretation,” adding to the fantabulous nature of entering the world of Salvador Dalí. On a Tuesday at 10 a.m., you might be greeted by a 20-something interested in some of the lesser known, yet intriguing, works whose own life story plays out in her interpretations; and an hour later, after a Spanish olive or two in the café, you might saunter back upstairs and be met with a 60-something, who tells you to look through your sunglasses to see Lincoln’s face in Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko).

In addition to the Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project, the museum had three special exhibits running while I was there — Much Ado About Shakespeare, 31 drypoint Dalí engravings of some of Shakespeare’s most memorable protagonists (through April 28); The Royal Inheritance: Dalí Works from the Spanish National Collection, 12 works on loan from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia never before exhibited in the United States, including the hair-raising, Portrait of Gala with Turban and the geometrically complex, A Propos of the “Treatise on Cubic Form” by Juan de Herrera (through April); and the Student Surrealist Art Exhibits, 2013 (Strangely Familiar), an annual museum competition for Florida students as another means to further Dalí’s legacy (through April 7).

In May, the museum will host a 24-hour reading of his fantastical autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí — a wink and a nod to the annual Bloomsbury Days held across the globe in honor of James Joyce.

Whether your penchant is for the esoteric, the surreal or the religiosity of Dalí, there is something for everyone at the stunning new Dalí Museum. It won’t disappoint. And one must never forget, there is always the added, much needed, bonus when in the sweltering heat of tropical Florida: you are always within walking distance of the best homemade ice cream in all its surreal glory.

The “Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project” exhibit is currently running through May 12, 2013 at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida (located at One Dali Blvd St. Petersburg, FL USA 33701). For more information, please visit call 727-823-3767.

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Featured image: “Nine of Cups” by Christian Louboutin. 2010. Ink on Paper. Photo Courtesy of: The Dali Museum/Stacy Engman.