UPDATE: The Pinellas County Board of Commissioners agreed to grant the Dali Museum’s request for $17.5 million in bed tax revenue Tuesday afternoon. It now goes to the Tourist Development Council for further review.
Artist Salvador Dali, master of the surreal, delver in the dark heart of imagination, left this world in 1989.
Yet, insists Hank Hine, executive director of St. Petersburg’s Dali Museum, the great man is still with us. “No great artist is dead,” Hine insists. “Their work lives on. But how do you find entry into it?”
Helping visitors understand and appreciate the Spanish painter’s intent, along with his extensive use of symbolism, totems and other signatures, has always been a major component of the museum’s mission. Hines, his board and his staff, have spent countless hours thinking about this since the museum launched in its spacious, $36 million second home by the bay in 2011 (following 19 years in another section of town).
And all indicators pointed to one thing: Technology.
Today, Hine will go before the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners to ask for $17.5 million in bed tax money – revenue generated through taxation of hotel rooms – to go towards a technological expansion of the Dali Museum.
“Eight years ago, we were the first recipient of ‘bricks and mortar’ bed tax money, $2.5 million, half of what we asked for,” Hine explains. “But we were happy to get it, and every bit helped. And we’ve returned, in that time period, at least a hundred times that amount in terms of dollars spent in the community. Because of people coming to the Dali. So it turned out to be a terrific investment of those funds.”
The museum reports attendance of between 360,000 and 450,000 paid visitors annually, three-quarters of them from out of town.
Now, the Dali is proposing a two-year, $38 million expansion, including a parking garage (parking has been an ongoing issue) but mostly to be directed towards the addition of a new wing to house its planned “Digital Dali” exhibits.
“We’re looking to create a kind of Dali IMAX in this new space, that will introduce them not only to Dali’s art, but to art in general,” Hine explains. “And the environment of making art, the history of surrealism, a little bit about Spain … in other words, kind of immerse them in the world, in person, of Dali. Which will make it all more meaningful as well as more easily accessible.”
The use of virtual reality – allowing the visitor to “enter” the art – was first introduced in 2016, with the museum’s ongoing Dreams of Dali exhibit, which utilizes innovative Oculus Rift technology.
According to Hine, the lack of arts education in our public school system is making it increasingly difficult for young people to “find their entry” into art.
“I think once they do, they get huge rewards from it,” he says. “Still, as ever human beings have. But it’s harder and harder, because they’re not trained how to interrogate a silent, two-dimensional piece and understand its terms.
“With technology, though, we can delight them into being absorbed with exactly those things. We’re not creating artworks, we’re creating experiences that allow the artworks to live. Dali can’t create more artworks; we’re adding entry. We’re adding access. We’re adding context, things that our educational system should provide so that a literate, cultured society can look at the art, from any era, and understand its terms. Get excited about it.”
On June 15, the museum will launch Visual Magic: Dali Masterworks in Augmented Reality, a preview of things to (hopefully) come. “It’s like having a really well-informed docent inside your head and taking you through the paintings,” Hine says.
Nevertheless, “We can only show part of what we’ve been working on with this artificial intelligence in the current building. There just isn’t space. We’re developing a host of programming, and we won’t be able to deploy it until we can build some more space.”
Arriving even sooner (most likely by the end of April) is Dali Lives, in which the artist himself – portrayed by an actor, on a very large screen – converses on a number of subjects with visitors.
Announced in January, Dali Lives isn’t completely interactive – the programmed illusion doesn’t allow that – but “he will take a photograph of you, which is pretty cool, and send it to you,’ Hine explains.
“We’re generating many minutes of Dali telling the visitor about his art – why he makes it, his aspirations, what they should look for. We’re living in an era of great biographical interest – we’re interested in people and what makes them tick – and this gives you that experience, which makes it that much easier to get into the artwork itself, and to get something out of it.”
None of this, Hines understands, “is a substitute for the art, but it gives you a kind of takeaway and an experience that augments your experience with the art.”
If the commission meeting goes well today, the Dali proposal will next go to the Tourist Development Council. If the bed tax funding is approved, the matter will then return to the commission. “There are a lot of meetings and hearings ahead,” Hine says. “I don’t have any idea how long the thing will take.”
The plan was devised following a museum-sponsored economic impact study that confirmed the Dali’s standing as the city’s most popular cultural destination.
“That’s our whole reason for doing this again,” Hine says. “We think we’ve got a really winning idea that will appeal to a wider demographic, and it will draw many, many people. And we want the county to help us do that, because we can’t do it on our own.”