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Chihuly picks bay area as home for first gallery

As a result of the glass artist's successful show at the Museum of Fine Arts last year, his first permanent installation will become part of a downtown development.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published August 14, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - The work of Dale Chihuly, whose glass exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts was the most popular show there ever, is going to become a permanent presence in St. Petersburg.

A comprehensive collection of large-scale installations by Chihuly, the first of its kind in the world, will get its own museumlike gallery downtown, opening in January 2008. It will be part of an ambitious project featuring a new home for the Arts Center, which will administer the Chihuly, as well as condominiums and retail space.

The size and scope of the Dale Chihuly Gallery at the Arts Center, its official name, will be similar to the 2004 blockbuster exhibition here that drew more than a quarter-million visitors.

Chihuly and his wife, Leslie, who live in Seattle, will make a rare public appearance in St. Petersburg on Tuesday for a news conference, and then he will have a public book-signing at the Arts Center, a not-for-profit educational facility and gallery, beginning at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Chihuly's work is well-known throughout the world, part of collections in many museums and dramatic interiors at upscale resorts. But Chihuly, who carefully controls the sale and placement of his sculptures, has never agreed to a permanent, comprehensive display of his work. He will create new sculptures that are site-specific to the gallery spaces.

"Dale was never interested in a vanity museum," said Evelyn Craft, director of the Arts Center, who helped negotiate the deal. "He loved the idea of its being part of an educational program that would help people, especially children and young artists. A lot of the profits from the gift shop will be donated to our educational programs."

According to his publicist, Janet Makela, Chihuly "thought it was a unique opportunity. I don't know of another one like it." "It's probably the biggest cultural announcement since the (Salvador) Dali (Museum) came here," said Mayor Rick Baker. "In a bigger picture, it solidifies St. Petersburg's position as the cultural center for the state."

The mayor also said it will have a major effect on downtown development.

"It becomes the anchor for the western part of downtown," Baker said. "It widens the redevelopment core, linking the Grand Central redevelopment with downtown redevelopment."

Marshall Rousseau, director emeritus of the Dali Museum, is expected to be named the Chihuly Gallery's director. "I think the Chihuly Gallery can be the kind of tourist draw that the Dali is," Rousseau said in a telephone interview from Chicago.

The Chihuly Gallery is the newest addition to developer Jimmy Aviram's ambitious project that uses a cultural facility rather than a golf course or the waterfront as an attractor to sell condominiums. But Aviram is going even further in making the Arts Center, and now also the Chihuly Gallery, the project's centerpieces. He is giving the Arts Center the land for its new facility, and contributing a percentage of the first condominium sales to it, as much as $2-million, he said.

"What Jimmy is doing is not just using us to sell condominiums," Craft said. "He's ensuring our continuing viability."

The 6,000-square-foot Chihuly Gallery will be next to a new 62,000-square-foot Arts Center and will contain new sculptures and installations by the artist.

"Dale will be working in tandem with the Arts Center to design the space," Makela said. "That will enable him to be hands-on in the crafting of the galleries and to visualize the art he'll create for them."

Aviram and Beth Morean, a local philanthropist who is a major Arts Center donor, will jointly purchase the glass sculptures, worth an estimated total of about $6-million, for the Chihuly Gallery. Those works will not be for sale, but a gift shop will sell smaller Chihuly glass sculptures, called edition glass. Aviram and Morean will use part of those profits to run the gallery. Eventually, Aviram said, the collection will revert to the Arts Center. No decision has been made about whether the gallery will have an admission fee; exhibits at the Arts Center will continue to be free to visitors.

The development of art facilities, condominiums and retail space, not yet named, was originally planned for the block between Eighth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Streets and Central Avenue and First Avenue N, a part of the downtown well west of most upscale development. Aviram now plans to incorporate the block south of the new site, which he also owns, into the design. On each block, an elliptical, glass-sheathed tower of 30 to 35 stories will rise "like gateways" Aviram said. Its total cost has risen from an initial $75-million to between $150-million and $200-million.

On the north block, the Arts Center will take over the old Landmark Union Trust Bank and add a multistory Glass House to the bank's northwest corner with an auditorium for glass-blowing demonstrations, artists' studios and classrooms. About 30,000 adults and children annually attend the Arts Center's popular classes, many of which have waiting lists. The center projects a jump to 58,000 when the new facility is built. The Glass House concept grew from the popularity of the center's temporary glass-blowing demonstrations held in conjunction with Chihuly's 2004 Museum of Fine Arts show.

That show proved pivotal in the development of the Arts Center. Founded in 1917, it was for decades a small storefront operation with several thousand students each year and very little exhibition space. In 1999, it moved to a 32,000-square-foot renovated building at 719 Central Ave. with more room for classes as well as exhibitions, many of museum quality.

But Craft says the Arts Center does not intend to become a museum, although galleries in the new building will be up to museum standards. She says the Arts Center's mission has always been and will continue to be educational, offering classes and the opportunity for members to exhibit and sell their work. With more and bigger galleries, the Arts Center will also have more special exhibitions of contemporary artists whose work, unlike art shows in museums, is for sale.

Until the 2004 Chihuly show, Craft said, "We had strong local support, but were never on the cultural tourist's map." That show drew several thousand tourists to the Arts Center for the first time.

Craft believes the prestige and visibility of the Chihuly Gallery will attract a stream of tourists as well as other international artists for demonstrations and exhibitions.

On the south block, Aviram plans retail space, with an emphasis on culture such as commercial galleries, and restaurants. Aviram estimates that there will be 600 condominiums that he hopes will have starting prices in the low $200,000s. That would be a real bargain compared to other new high-rise condominiums in St. Petersburg, some of which are priced in the millions.

In spreading the project over two blocks, Aviram said, he was able to add more parklike spaces and walkways, giving the project the appearance of a village.

Why did Chihuly choose St. Petersburg for his first-ever permanent collection gallery?

He wasn't available for comment Friday, but there are a number of factors at play.

His association with Aviram goes back decades, when the developer helped build the Boathouse, his famous Seattle studio and home.

"I have known Dale for many years," Aviram said. "I was involved a long time ago in helping build his place in Seattle and we developed a friendship. I always had in mind to get the Chihuly element here."

Another factor: the Museum of Fine Arts show in 2004, said Makela, Chihuly's publicist. "He had a very successful show in St. Petersburg. He was so welcomed. He's been all over the world, but he's very excited about this project and that speaks well for your city."

"From the beginning he liked the idea," said Aviram. "But it's still amazing that he agreed."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or 727 893-8293.

IF YOU GO

Dale Chihuly will be at the Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday for a book-signing. The event is free and open to the public. Books about Chihuly's art will be for sale or patrons may bring their own. For more information, call (727) 822-7872.