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Artist's visit stirs enthusiasm for exhibit

It's official: The Arts Center will house Dale Chihuly's first permanent exhibit. "I do love towns by the sea," he says.

By LENNIE BENNETT
Published August 17, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - After the laudatory speeches and proclamations of civic pride, world-famous artist Dale Chihuly had a simple statement Tuesday for admirers who came to the Arts Center to applaud him.

"I promise you," he said, "myself and my team will work hard putting together a great collection of work and make something very special for you."

The glass artist and his wife, Leslie, were in town for the official announcement of the Chihuly Collection at the Arts Center. Scheduled to open in January 2008, it and a new Arts Center will be the centerpieces of a residential-retail project by developer Jimmy Aviram.

Aviram and Arts Center leaders unveiled preliminary renderings for the project, which he will call the Art Village. Two elliptical glass towers with 30 to 35 stories will rise like gateways on two blocks west of the downtown core, between First Avenue N and First Avenue S and Eighth Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

The Chihuly Collection will be the first permanent display by the artist, who is known for his multipiece glass installations. Against a backdrop of his swirled, multicolored Macchia and his conceptual paintings, Chihuly was extolled by Mayor Rick Baker for choosing St. Petersburg to house his art.

"If you could wish for one thing that would make us the neatest, coolest place, that would put us over the top, what would it be?" Baker asked.

"Chihuly," the crowd answered.

Chihuly said he made the decision without knowing much about the city.

"I do love towns by the sea," he said in a later interview. "I've been here before but I really haven't seen much of the city. I made the decision because the people I'm working with are really nice, exceptionally so."

The educational mission of the Arts Center, which will administer the collection, also was key to his decision to locate his gallery in St. Petersburg, he said earlier.

During the Tuesday gathering, Evelyn Craft, the Arts Center's executive director, introduced the core group that is making a new Arts Center and the Chihuly Collection possible. Aviram is donating a percentage of condominium sales - up to $2-million - to the capital campaign. Beth Morean, a local philanthropist, has given the lead gift of $10.2-million, which puts the Arts Center halfway to its $20-million goal. She and Aviram are purchasing the $6-million Chihuly Collection, which eventually will revert to the Arts Center's ownership.

After the announcement, Chihuly, who wears an eye patch since losing his left eye in a car accident in the 1970s, recalled an article several years ago in the New York Times about single-artist museums.

"It interested me how few there are and that Dali has a museum here (the Salvador Dali Museum)," he said. Chihuly met Marshall Rousseau, director of his future gallery at the Arts Center, and learned that Rousseau is director emeritus of the Dali.

"I didn't know that," Chihuly said. "That should make it more interesting."

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