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Persistence of a museum

photo
[Times files]
Reynolds Morse and Salvador Dali became friends as the Morses collected Dali’s work. By the 1970s the Morses had spent about $2-million on 94 oil paintings, 150 watercolors and drawings and more than 1,000 prints and objects. By 1980, when they sent the works to St. Petersburg, the collection was worth $50-million.

By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 10, 2002


In 1980, almost no one thought St. Petersburg was the place for a museum to house an extensive private collection of Salvador Dali's works. Twenty years after it opened, the Dali Museum has come of age.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Salvador Dali Museum was born 20 years ago today, the product of a young lawyer's dream, the tenacity of civic leaders and the resolve of a Cleveland couple who would settle for no less than their own vision of a museum to house their collection.

Poised on a narrow strip of land overlooking Bayboro Harbor, the Salvador Dali Museum today is the vessel of those hopes, as well as a vindication.

To cap its anniversary celebration, museum officials on Friday were to unveil Dali's The Persistence of Memory, a rare loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is among Dali's greatest works and one of the iconic paintings of the 20th century.

But along with artistic and financial validation, the Dali Museum's anniversary celebrates a maturation that has at times been as difficult and complicated as the artist it enshrines.

photo This painting, Daddy Longlegs of the Evening . . . Hope!, was the first the Morses purchased, in 1942.

[Photo courtesy of the Salvador Dali Foundation]

A wedding gift

"He asked me to come up and see his etchings. And I went," recalled Eleanor Morse of her first date with her future husband. "And he really had etchings."

So began in 1940 the story of Eleanor Reese and Reynolds Morse, who met at a concert and fell in love with each other and the work of Salvador Dali soon after. They married in 1942. They bought their first Dali, Daddy Longlegs of the Evening -- Hope!, that year.

"We called it our wedding present to ourselves," Mrs. Morse said.

photo
[Photo courtesy of the Salvador Dali Museum]
Salvador Dali, Reynolds and Eleanor Morse at Knoedler Art Gallery in New York City in April 1943. The Morses had bought their first Dali work as a wedding present for each other the year before.
Even after 60 years, Eleanor Morse cannot fully articulate why she and her husband were drawn to Dali.

"We collected other artists, but we were fascinated by him," she said.

The Morses and their son Brad lived modestly even as they amassed a fortune from a manufacturing business. Their great indulgence was collecting works by the Spanish surrealist artist that shocked some of their family and friends, but intrigued others.

"My father said we'd taken leave of our senses," she said. "After all, you have things like The Great Masturbator. I would never talk about it when I took people around."

By the 1970s they had spent about $2-million on 94 oil paintings, 150 watercolors and drawings and more than 1,000 prints and objects. In 1979, Morse turned 64. In a moment of memento mori, he realized that when he died, the collection would have to be dispersed to pay estate taxes.

So the Morses decided to give the collection away.

Alert reader makes a call

Donating a collection that had appreciated to $50-million should have been easy.

But Ren and Eleanor Morse insisted that the collection be kept intact, a condition no museum would accept.

Also at issue was the size of the collection.

"I can't conceive of a museum taking on the problem of finding so much exhibition and storage space for any modern artist," said a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art at the time.

Their collection, for almost 20 years a source of joy, had become, said Morse in an interview at that time, "one big pain in the butt."

Then, on a January afternoon in 1980, James W. Martin, a 30-year-old lawyer in St. Petersburg, noticed a headline in the Wall Street Journal: "U.S. Art World Dillydallies Over Dalis."

He read about the Morses' efforts. He looked at the signed Dali print on his office wall. He picked up the phone.

Back then, St. Petersburg's downtown was moribund, stalled between those who wanted major development and those who feared higher property taxes and the ruin of the waterfront. Major League Baseball had snubbed the city's advances. Racial unrest had erupted in violence more than once.

The area's primary cultural references were the Florida Orchestra, which had its headquarters in Tampa, and the Museum of Fine Arts on Beach Drive.

But a stir was beginning. Bayfront Tower, a high-end condominium, and Plaza Tower, a retail-office complex, had opened near the downtown waterfront. A new campus of the University of South Florida was under construction a few blocks to the south.

"I thought, "Why not here?' " Martin said. "I was too naive to know it couldn't be done."

He cold-called the couple and pitched St. Petersburg as a site.

"Absolutely not," said Eleanor Morse.

But talks were not going well in Austin, Texas, where the University of Texas wanted the collection but did not have space for it.

Martin talked up his idea around St. Petersburg, and before long, he and Rick Dodge, director of leisure services at the time, flew to Cleveland to call on the Morses. The Morses were not encouraging but agreed to come to St. Petersburg that spring.

"It was a beautiful place," Mrs. Morse said. "Ren said it was no good because they had an upside-down pyramid (the Pier), which was bad luck."

They were polite about the proposed sites but rejected them all.

As they stood on the water's edge of the USF campus, Morse pointed to a warehouse on land across Bayboro Harbor.

It was, he declared, the perfect setting for their museum.

The Morses got that derelict building and a whole lot more. The state Legislature kicked in $2-million for construction and said it would consider giving the museum up to $200,000 annually for the next five years. There also were plans for an affiliation with USF, which the Morses thought could enhance Dali's reputation.

In return, they would donate their entire collection to the state.

Construction began almost immediately to transform the 10,000-square-foot warehouse -- which had been slated for demolition -- into a museum.

In November 1980 a fleet of trucks arrived from Cleveland with a $50-million payload for St. Petersburg. It would be tucked away into another warehouse for more than a year while construction on the museum continued.

photo
[Times files]
The Morses remained involved in the museum long after donating the artwork and are seen here during construction. They bought a home in St. Petersburg and divided their time between Florida and Cleveland. They also covered operating deficits of the museum during its early years.

Ahead of its time

Twenty years ago, a single-artist museum was an anomaly in the U.S. They have been common for decades in Europe, but the concept didn't catch on here until the 1990s. That decade saw the opening of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Kim Iago, vice president of the American Association of Museums, could not think of any single-artist museums operating in 1982.

Not only was the Dali museum a pioneer, it showcased an artist "everyone thought was crazy," said Eleanor Morse.

"The impression I got was that Dali was very popular but not considered a great artist by the art world," said Martin.

The Salvador Dali Museum opened with a splash of parties and publicity on March 10, 1982.

From the beginning, it was a commercial success. Unlike most art museums at the time, it charged admission and soon had a lucrative gift shop.

"The docents were horrified when we put the gift shop in," Mrs. Morse said.

The Dali did not have a director with credentials in art scholarship; instead, the board hired John Sellars, who had managed a recreation facility in South Carolina.

But the Morses didn't just drop off the art. They bought a modest house in the Snell Isle neighborhood of St. Petersburg and divided their time between Florida and Cleveland, where Morse still ran his manufacturing business.

In St. Petersburg, the gruff and outspoken Morse was a constant presence at the museum, making decisions ranging from what the docents were taught to how the collection was displayed. Sellers resigned within the year, replaced by Stuart Smith, director of operations at Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

Despite 80,000 visitors and gift shop sales of close to $140,000, the Salvador Dali Museum posted a $100,000 deficit out of a budget of $565,000 in 1984.

By 1986, one year short of its goal to achieve self-sufficiency in five years, the museum was still dependent on state subsidies.

"Tell your bosses," a legislator said to Joan Kropf, longtime curator of the collection who was lobbying the Pinellas County delegation, "that they may have come to the public trough once too much."

The Morses frequently dug into their own deep pockets to cover shortfalls. He believed the museum was perceived locally as "one man's toy." A fundraising effort for an expansion had stalled. Newspaper reports detailed his micromanaging.

"Whether Eleanor and I have the stamina at our age to revitalize the Dali project to keep it alive, we do not know," he wrote to the Times Publishing Co., a major contributor and the publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, in December 1986. "Eleanor and I both feel that we will not undertake the subsidy personally yet we naturally want to avoid the alternative of recommending that the state disperse the collection and shut the museum down."

Scandal, then progress

In 1985, the art world was rocked by a scandal involving fraudulent Dali prints. Two years later, Ren Morse was implicated, and several lawsuits were brought against him. They were all eventually dismissed.

Despite the controversy and the dire picture Morse painted of the institution's financial health, the situation was improving at the museum as it approached its 10th anniversary. Attendance continued to increase. A larger board was resuscitating the capital campaign.

Morse continued to exert enormous influence. He stopped the effort to gain accreditation by the American Association of Museums, to which all serious museums aspire, because he found the questions "insulting." Smith resigned in 1986, replaced by lawyer J. Scott Simmons. He quit in 1990 over "irreconcilable differences with Morse," a newspaper story reported.

Morse said Simmons would not be replaced: "It's a very small operation and I wonder if there's any need for a high-priced executive."

A new era begins

"Ren was an amazing person," said Tom James, who has served on the Dali board since 1987 and as its president for six years. "But he was extremely difficult to deal with."

Marshall Rousseau was named director in April 1991. A board member since 1984, he came with a strong marketing background and a love of modern art. More important, the Morses trusted him and considered him an equal, which had not been true of any previous director.

"Marshall took what was an almost impossible situation and was able to get Ren to move in a new direction," said James.

By 1991, about 1-million visitors had flocked to the St. Petersburg museum to see the most comprehensive Dali collection in the world.

In their early years as collectors, the Morses had several bad experiences with lending out their treasures. Kropf recalled that one museum allowed photographers' hot lights to shine on Basket of Bread for so long they "cooked" the painting, and it had to be restored.

But the practice of loaning burnishes a museum's reputation and establishes reciprocal relationships with other museums. Much was at stake when Rousseau and Kropf talked to Eleanor Morse about loaning work for "The Young Dali," an exhibition organized by the Hayward Gallery in London in 1994. The Hayward promised to bring the show to the Salvador Dali Museum in 1995 after stints in Europe and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

"She persuaded Ren," said Rousseau, "because she understood the wisdom of it."

She also persuaded him to allow the museum's interior to be reconfigured to seven smaller galleries to accommodate the visiting show.

The next year marked another first. In July 1996, "From Gaudi to Tapies: Catalan Masters of the Twentieth Century" opened at the Dali, featuring works by Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. Never before had artists other than Dali been shown there.

In 1997 the museum finally received the coveted accreditation by the American Association of Museums. Rousseau and the board hired William Jeffett, who held a Ph.D and had the credentials to organize the important exhibits the museum wanted to mount.

"We had to do that without Ren's knowledge," Rousseau said. "He didn't trust outside forces that might try to change what he wanted the museum to be."

Those who knew him best began to see changes in Morse.

"He'd always had a very good memory," said Eleanor Morse. "And it started getting very poor."

"He went from being just forgetful to being disengaged," James said.

After a series of strokes, Morse died on Aug. 15, 2000, at 85.

Museum with a view

The museum continued to stretch its mission, bringing in one-man shows by contemporary artists such as Kenny Scharf and James Rosenquist.

Rousseau traveled around the U.S., Europe and Asia, establishing relationships with major museums and their directors.

By the late 1990s, the annual count of more than 225,000 visitors kept the museum full. The gift shop was netting $3-million a year.

Rousseau and the trustees had known for years that the museum needed to grow. A $1.1-million expansion in 1989 added a community room, library and large vault to protect the art in any but the most cataclysmic hurricanes. But there still was not enough gallery space to keep the permanent collection on display during visiting exhibitions.

Now the trustees must decide whether to enlarge the museum or move to an entirely new facility.

"Everyone always talks about the view here," said Rousseau, "how we would be nuts to leave this waterfront. But if a Category 5 hurricane comes through, the only thing left of the museum will be the view."

Said James: "We would probably move if money were not an issue."

Adding a second story to the present museum would cost between $6-million and $9-million. A new building "from the ground up" would cost about $15-million.

"We could cobble together $6-million for an expansion," said James. "I don't see it in the cards that we could raise $15-million at this time. It might be wiser to bide our time rather than doing the addition and not getting what we want."

Marshall Rousseau plans to retire in July after 11 years as museum director. His successor will be Charles D. "Hank" Hine III, director since 1994 of Graphicstudio, the world-famous facility at the University of South Florida in Tampa that brings in renowned artists to work with master printers.

photo
[Photo courtesy of the Salvador Dali Foundation]
The Salvador Dali Museum

Persistence pays off

There is no more telling mark of how far the Salvador Dali Museum has come in 20 years than the arrival of The Persistence of Memory from the Museum of Modern Art.

"Twenty years, or even 10 years ago, they never would have sent it," said Jim Martin. "You'll probably never see it again," he said of the pairing of the two works.

Rousseau and Eleanor Morse have been appointed to the international committee overseeing the 2004 celebration of Dali's Centennial (the group's honorary chairmen are the King and Queen of Spain). The Salvador Dali Museum is loaning several works to a huge centennial show at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy. That show is expected to tour several large U.S. cities but will be too big for the Dali Museum.

"However it has happened," said Rousseau, "we now have a reputation that extends throughout the world. It's significant for us and for the city."

Jim Martin still marvels at the impact of his long-ago phone call.

"What really caused it to work was the generosity of Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, who had this vision and gave us this gift. They could have sold off the collection and made millions. But they were true collectors."

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