Hello Dali

by Monty Montgomery

KATHY WHITE, Deputy Director of the world-famous Salvador Dali Museum, located on St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront, is one of its longest-serving staff members. Joining the Dali prior to its official opening in March, 1982 as a just-out-of-school volunteer docent, she’s now passed her 25th anniversary at the celebrated institution and “can’t believe how fast the years have flown by and how blessed I am to be working with such a historic collection of the world’s greatest art.” Her happiness is understandable. Working surrounded by the creative works of Dali, considered by many to be the 20th Century’s greatest artist, finds her in an enviable position. She is helping watch over and care for “the world’s most comprehensive Dali collection”: 96 oil paintings, 100 watercolors and drawings, and 1300+ graphics, photos, sculptures, and art objects. Easily the greatest artistic treasure in our state, it’s a venue for all to enjoy—especially Southwest Floridians!

Monty Montgomery: How has the collection grown or changed since it was first donated by its original owners, Mr. & Mrs. Morse of Cleveland, Ohio?

Kathy White: We have added to it. In large-scale works, we have added three paintings. The most recent one was a couple years ago, the painting of Lincoln. It’s a double image work, where you see the face of Lincoln as well as Dali’s wife and muse, Gala, in various blocks of color. Dali painted it in 1976, around the time of our bicentennial, which makes it one of his later works.

Two other paintings, both on view now, have been added: one is very, very large and has a very long title, ‘Galacidalacidesoxyribunucleicacid.’ The first part of the title combines his name, his wife Gala’s name and El Sid; the last part refers to DNA. It’s one of his “fun titles” and it is, unquestionably, a big painting. ‘Portrait of My Dead Brother’ is also considered one of his large works. So, those are the three major large paintings we’ve bought. We’ve also added various objects, and numerous prints, watercolors and drawings. We’re always looking, but there is not a lot available. Dali wasn’t quite as prolific as some other 20th Century artists.

Really? I thought he did many, many works!

He did a lot, yes. But his technique meant he spent a long period of time on a work, a lot more, for example, that many of Picasso’s pieces, where with a swirl, swirl, dash, dash, it was very quickly finished. There’s just not much still available; there’s already so much in the three major holdings of the world, even though it’s not uncommon for a print or something of that sort to become available. On the other hand, principal works that we might look at and say “This would fit in our collection”, there’s not that much. We do have a committee that looks after things like that.

Is this the largest collection of Dali works in the world?

It is the largest collection in the United States. There is a very large collection in his place of birth, Figueres, Spain. It was his museum; he installed it there. Then, when he died he also gave a lot of his works to the Museum of Modern Art equivalent in Madrid, the Riena Sophia, which is like MOMA in New York City. So, Madrid has a large holding and Figueres has probably the largest. Outside of those, which are owned by the government of Spain, ours is the largest collection.

So this is the third largest in the world?

I do believe, outside of Figueres ours may be bigger than the Riena Sophia’s. And if you think about it, considering it was just one private couple’s collection, started in the forties—I don’t know how many private collectors of that nature there are anymore—and that they gave up their entire collection, it is such an amazing, great philanthropic deed. They just gave it all. They don’t own it. They don’t hold any proprietary financial or fiduciary interest in it.

What’s your yearly attendance?

We’re around 200,000. We go up and down from that average.

Other than being the USA destination showcase for Dali and preserving and promoting his work, what are any other strategic objectives the museum pursues?

We are a collecting museum, so we do try to add to our holdings.

We certainly want to contribute to scholarship about Dali. We hold discussions about his work and participate in important conferences, both hosting them and attending them to continue that scholarship. Of course, preservation is a major focus of our efforts. Great works of art require conservation and delicate maintenance, no question. For us it’s a solemn obligation.

Also, museums exist ‘in communities’. Like Fort Myers, we have a large population of visitors and are considered ‘an attraction’. With everything we try to do, in addition to opening our doors and showing our permanent collection, we have a lot of programming—educational and entertainment events as well as special exhibitions—all aimed at keeping the museum vital and relevant for immediate local Tampa Bay communities as well as communities within easy-drive time and distance. Florida residents are half our annual visitors.
Visitors to the area are going to come to the museum when they’re here. That’s why we direct most of our programming and advertising to visitors while they’re here, not in distant areas such as Chicago or Boston. When they’re here, we make ourselves known and they’ll come for exhibitions or special events. For local residents we offer a full calendar of changing After-Hours, S’real Fridays, wine tastings, concerts and other music events that make each return visit fresh, new and different. We’ve become more than just a place you go to view art.

I notice your current ‘Dali In Focus’ exhibition that looks at the underlying historical, psychological and spiritual themes in seven specific Dali works runs through January20, 2008. What do you have coming up afterwards?

The next big event, scheduled from February to June 2008, is ‘Dali and Film’, an exhibition now in the Tate Modern Museum in London, which includes several works of ours. (A lot of our pictures do travel.) It will go from London to the LA County Museum in the fall and then it will come here in February, then following us it goes to MOMA. The show is ‘All Dali’, very large, and will probably supplant our permanent collection, since we will add to what’s coming with a lot of works of our own. It will be paintings and film. Un Chien Andalou will be there, playing all the time. You’ll get to see the eyeballs and everything. A hundred, thousand times I’ve seen it and it affects me the same way. Very visceral and funny. A very funny film.

Destino will also be showing. It’s a work he did with Disney, a little short that was going to be part of a ‘Fantasia-type’ production. He worked on it but didn’t finish it in his lifetime. It was actually finished a few years ago just in time for the Dali centennial year celebrations. We showed it during our ‘Dali and Mass Culture’ exhibition and it was great. Six minutes of wonderful animation that I thought was just beautiful! About a ballerina that falls in love with a baseball player, based on a Mexican tune called “Destino.”

Spellbound will also be shown, the whole idea being that Dali was involved and integral with film and film development and film had a great impact on painting and other visual arts, underscoring the connections between those two media.

It promises to be quite a blockbuster show, even bringing in ‘The Persistence of Memory’ which never, ever gets out of the MOMA. It’s the original version from 1924 —ours is a later version, from 1937. They may or may not be shown side by side; I don’t know what order the curator will display things in yet.

Hearing your description and enthusiasm, presented all together as one exhibition, it sounds—to use a term Guide Michelin would use—“well worth a visit”!

It is. Without question. I don’t use ‘blockbuster’ easily or often.

How likely is it that someday Dali’s ‘Sacrament of the Last Supper’ could come here from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.?

You know, I hope someday it will. Unfortunately, Dali’s work in the National Gallery or any other museum collection is always extremely popular with the public, separate from any changing tastes and opinions of professionals in the field. People often come in and ask, “Where is Dali’s ‘Last Supper’? or whatever particular work a gallery might have, and if it’s not there, the gallery or museum ends up with very disappointed visitors. As a result, curators and directors aren’t that eager to let his most-beloved major work travel. Still, we always hope to make arrangements to have works like that shown here; it would be great.

You suggest that opinions of Dali’s work change—what do you mean?

Well, of course, Dali in his lifetime, after the early surrealist period, around the forties and fifties, he started getting very commercial in the sense that he worked in commercial art and actually produced TV commercials and every other type of thing. He also became an international personality, notable—some might say notorious—celebrated, even controversial, much like one of today’s well-publicized movie or rock stars.

I once saw him live on Broadway during the late sixties in a 'happening' where I remember him hand-painting nude models inside a plastic bubble tennis court inflated onstage.

Those types of activities weren’t always viewed by art critics and historians of the time as ‘the things to do.’ They viewed him as ‘selling out.’ Now, of course, with time and distance when we can see the influence Dali had on generations of artists it was all part of his output at a happening or whatever, part of his art. So, views of him are changing. He’s no longer considered just a sellout; now his personal flamboyance is viewed within the context and as an aspect of the whole Dali oeuvre.

A lot of that is due to scholarship that looks at an artist apart from his personality or polarizing presence. The primary focus can be the work itself and how it fits in with everything else. And, as I said, we’ve contributed with numerous conferences, particularly in connection with his centennial, that have placed Dali in his rightful, much more favorable position. So now, especially his later works are getting much more positive scrutiny and reappraisal.

As I recall, there are many elements that reappear in his work. One example is the bread, you have it here; I forget its name...?

‘The Basket of Bread’.

Yes, yes. That same image or variation appears again in other works, ‘The Last Supper’ for example. What does scholarship say about how/why those elements were repeated?

Dali developed some elements particular to him, such as the melted clock, as interpretations of Freudian ideas. Then, other things like the bread are traditional symbols, icons that he repeated as evocative themes throughout his career. Visitors often comment about suddenly finding particular elements they remember in a painting from an earlier visit also in another work where they hadn’t really noticed it before.

We do have quite a few repeat visitors. Some of them come back and “want to see that painting” they saw the last time. So, certain things, such as ‘Columbus Discovering America,’ we really try to keep up at all times. But, since we do loan our works, with some of them in high demand, occasionally a popular work may be somewhere else. Which, of course, is just another reason for visitors to come back again! •

from the September-October 2007 issue

If someone told you that
the greatest collection of
artwoks by Salvador Dali
was just a short drive
from Fort Myers...
they just might be right.

'Portrait of My Dead Brother'

'The Hallucinogenic Toreador'

'Geopoliticus Child Watching
the Birth of the New Man'

before (above) and after (below)
recent restoration
Third Street South
St. Petersburg •