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Cultural Odyssey in Florida

by Peter Morrell on 07 February 2014, 12:02PM

Peter Morrell, on his four part cultural tour of the Sunshine State, starts in style with St Petersburg

It’s before 10:00am on a December morning and I am strolling next to Tampa Bay. The sky is blue, it’s well over 70 degrees, the locals are bidding me good morning and I am looking forward to seeing three world class art galleries all within a walk of each other. St Petersburg is a cultural hotspot in Florida and it is one of the legs of an odyssey I am taking through the southern part of the state to appreciate the richness of its arts.


The Museum of Fine Arts
My first stop was The Museum of Fine Arts.  This elegant gallery, designed by John Volk and built in 1965, houses a comprehensive and wide ranging collection covering 4500 years of art and artefacts. The works are categorised by type and there is a good representation of exhibits from both Europe and America. I was particularly taken by the portrait of Paul Robeson painted by Randall Davey c 1920-1925. For me the painting captured the very essence and strength of the man who was an entertainer, athlete and civil rights activist.  For lovers of European art there are works by Renoir, Monet, Rodin, Cezanne and Morisot, and many much earlier works.


As well as this rich permanent collection, the museum is host to an array of temporary exhibitions. When I visited there was a fascinating collection of paintings associated with golf. The Art of Golf was jointly organised by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the National Galleries of Scotland, spanning four centuries and featuring 90 artists. 


The St Petersburg Museum of History
It was an encouraging start to my tour to find the St Petersburg Museum of History literally across the street. Sadly, time pressure didn’t allow me to pay a visit but this is another major asset to the city. Here you will find the history of the local area as well as numerous exhibits. For art lovers the exhibition of paintings by a group known as the Florida Highwaymen will be of interest. There were 26 African-American artists who painted from the 1950s to the 1980s and used vivid, bright colours to portray the untouched Florida landscape.


The Dali Museum
A stroll along the bay took me to an iconic building designed by Yann Weymouth that opened in January 2011. The Dali Museum is the latest addition to the St Petersburg waterfront cultural scene and is impressive not just for its content but for the ‘Enigma’. This is a glass geodesic bubble which erupts from the side of the building and is in homage to the dome on the Dali Museum in Spain. The surreal theme continues in the building which has 18 inch thick hurricane proof walls. For example, the spiral staircase recalls Dali’s obsession with the double helical shape of the DNA molecule.

I joined a tour led by a docent, who is a volunteer guide.  These enthusiastic individuals emerged as a theme during my trip. All are extremely knowledgeable and can bring an exhibition alive with their commentary. This was no exception, as the docent took us on a life journey of Dali, from young talented artist painting rural scenes of Spain to anti-establishment rebel pushing the very bounds of human thinking. There are many iconic works in the collection from the ‘Lobster Telephone’ to huge canvases littered with symbolism and trompe d’oeil effects. This was a well guided exhibition and I felt for the first time that I understood some of Dali’s motivations for the work he produced.


The Chihuly Collection
Back along the bay I visited another body of work which has its own sense of surrealism but this time the medium was blown glass. The name Dale Chihuly may not be familiar to many of you but he is a master glass blower who studied his craft in Murano, Italy and then took the form to new, unimaginable heights. Despite personal adversity: he lost an eye in a car accident in the UK and dislocated his shoulder while surfing; his imagination and his team’s skill are still producing the most exquisite glass sculpting.
Examples of his work are the chandelier under the main dome of the V & A museum in London and a huge work in the Atlantis Palm Dubai. The Chihuly collection in St Petersburg, which is run by the Morean Arts Center, really does put into context Dale’s skills. It is difficult to believe that the pieces have all been made with molten glass. The exhibition was a riot of form and colour with chandeliers which are his signature, a full size boat filled with glass orbs and the most surreal garden that you will ever see. This visual stimulation was again enhanced by the very enthusiastic and well-informed docent who didn’t just show us around but described the techniques used to make the pieces and talked about where Chihuly got his inspiration for this really unique collection.


Summing Up
St Petersburg was a great start to my cultural odyssey.  As well as offering a wide range of world class art exhibits all in close proximity it is a very equitable place to spend some time with lots of pavement cafes, eateries and specialist shops to browse around. If you are looking for a piece of local art to take back as a souvenir there is a wide choice and, if you have very deep pockets, you can even buy a Chihuly original. Even if you are not an avid culture vulture I would recommend that you take a break from the beach for a day and enjoy the arts that St Petersburg has to offer.

For more information about holidays to Florida, call 0845 543 6615 or visit www.travelbag.co.uk

To find out more about Florida go to www.visitflorida.com

Author bio: Peter Morrell is editor of www.aboutmygeneration.com & www.culturalvoyager.com

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