The Dali Museum put St. Petersburg on the art world map way back in the 1980s, but three new art museums in St. Petersburg – each built to house extraordinary private collections of a specific kind of art – have turned this Florida city into a destination no art connoisseur should miss.
The newest addition, opened in September 2021, is a five-story free-standing museum devoted entirely to the American Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1890s to 1930s. The movement honored hand craftsmanship and natural materials over machine-made objects, and the items in one-of-a-kind museum represent the best of the art of craftmanship.
The museum houses furniture, tile works, pottery, lamps and more from the collection of pharmaceutical magnate Rudy Ciccarello, who spared no expense to create a world-class museum. Like the Dali, this museum’s architecture is a work of art itself, with a showy spiral staircase, an exterior ovoid that creates an oval gallery on each floor, and art deco skylights.
The city’s next-newest museum, the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, also boasts a stunning architectural feature: A rippling sandstone exterior and lobby created from 4,406 unique stones quarried in India. The James Museum opened in April 2018 to house the outsized collection of paintings, jewelry, prints and sculpture related to the American West owned by Tom James, chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial, and his wife Mary.
Earlier in 2018, a large collection of studio art glass owned by artist and philanthropist Trish Duggan opened as the Imagine Museum in the city’s Grand Central District to celebrate the mostly American studio art glass movement. Duggan’s own work and collaborations with other glass artists is on display, along with a broad and varied collection of glass artworks from around the world.
These three museums added 100,000 square feet of display space for art to a city that already enjoyed not only the Dali, but an exquisite collection of works by noted artist Dale Chihuly, the studio and home of glass artist Duncan McClellan, and a stately waterfront Museum of Fine Art with an eclectic collection from the ancient world to today.
St. Petersburg has seven distinct arts districts where galleries, studios, cooperative workspaces, and education programs offer opportunities to artists, dabblers and collectors. These areas are celebrated the second Saturday of each month, when the artists open their studios and invite the public to visit. In addition, the city is home to more than 400 outdoor murals and an internationally recognized mural-painting event each October, The Shine Mural Festival.
St. Petersburg is indeed a City of Art.
St. Pete’s Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement
Collector Rudy Cicciarello spent about $90 million to build this showplace, which I like to call “the museum of beautiful things,” because it is filled with finely crafted furniture, pottery, tiles, lamps, textiles, photography, woodblocks, metalwork, windows and graphic art dating to a time when simplicity and grace ruled the day and hand-crafted items for the home were in demand.
There are also three complete room installations in the museum – a bedroom vignette featuring furnishings from Craftsman and Roycroft, an entry foyer from a home with a wide stained-glass door and hand-carved paneling, and a bathroom covered floor to ceiling with hand-painted tiles.
One showpiece in the museum is a table made from a single slice of redwood from Muir Woods in California by Japanese-American artist George Nakashima, most of whose work was tragically lost in a fire.
Visitors can see windows, a cabinet and vases made by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, lamps by Tiffany, tiles and ceramics by Grueby, furniture by Stickley and Roycroft. Pottery from Rookwood, Marblehead and Newcomb – all noted artist communities — fill one gallery. Prints and illustrations from the period made for children are a delight for all ages.
Many of the works throughout the museum were created by women artists who found handcraft work available to them in the early 20th century.
Although I’m usually the one you’ll find hanging out in galleries filled with paintings, I cannot get enough of this museum. The simplicity, beauty and craftsmanship of the pieces in this collection make me want to return again and again.
The Arts Café on the ground floor makes delicious pressed deli sandwiches, salads and baked goods. The museum store, like the museum itself, is filled with beautiful things, including tableware, tiles, scarves, jewelry, handbags and lamps that echo the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement. There is also an excellent selection of books about the movement and the museum’s collection.
The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg
My friends know I call this the “cowboys and Indians museum” because that’s what’s depicted in the vast majority of the art in this museum — except for the wildlife gallery, which is full of realistic paintings of animals.
Each sandstone block of the museum’s exterior and lobby was painstakingly numbered where it was quarried, then placed so that the walls look like artistically designed sandstone cliffs.
Collector Tom James spent about $55 million remodeling this building, which the museum shares with a city parking garage.
You won’t fail to notice the statuesque and regal bronze statues of American Indians in the museum’s lobby. There are more upstairs after you pay the price of admission.
My favorite gallery by far is the Native Artists Gallery, where artwork by living American Indian artists is displayed. This artwork is fierce and thoughtful, and, to me, more thought-provoking than the walls and walls of realistic and naturalistic paintings of cowboys and Indians in the rest of the galleries.
The Native Artists gallery surrounds the Jewel Box, a fascinating collection of Native-made jewelry, including several vintage pieces.
The James Museum also has a lively Happy Hour concert series, a high-quality gift shop, and the Canyon Café, featuring a long wooden bar from the early 1900s such as you might see in a Western saloon. The cafe is closed temporarily due to COVID, but you can see the bar at the rear of the gift shop.
Imagine Museum in St. Petersburg
I want to call this the “museum of fascination and meditation,” because the works on display invite both. Imagine Museum is good name, as every work in this exquisite collection invites you to imagine a story, emotion or idea. It is impressive to see the many ways glass can be used to create art: dizzying infinity mirror pieces, gardens of glass, a bakery in miniature, thought-provoking boat-like pieces by Swedish artist Bertil Vallien, works that look like waves, flowing water, space aliens — works of blown glass, works of cast glass, works made by melting and bending rods of glass into shapes.
Two spaces particularly feel like a call to meditation. One is a wall of 1,000 Buddha heads in repeating patterns, created by Duggan. The other is a wall sculpture with holes through which a kaleidoscope plays continuously.
Each year the museum chooses a working glass artist to feature in one of its galleries with a year-long installation. In 2022, that artist is Chihuly protégé Martin Blank, whose work, “If A River Could Tell a Story” opened Jan. 29.
Collector Duggan, an accomplished glass artist, is the billionaire ex-wife of venture capitalist Robert Duggan and a top donor to Scientology. She first envisioned the Imagine Museum in 2016 to house part of her collection of more than 1,500 studio glass works, including many of her own. Imagine Museum opened in January 2018 and houses only a portion of her collection. She announced in 2020 that she would like to open a second glass art museum near the world Scientology headquarters in Clearwater.
A well-curated gift shop offers art glass, decorative glass items and jewelry.
Chihuly Collection and Morean Glass Studio in St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg’s Chihuly Collection moved to a new space in Central Avenue’s Edge District in 2016 from a temporary space on Beach Drive that it occupied at least since 2010. The permanent space is the first in the world designed and built to house specific installations by Dale Chihuly, the world’s most famous glass artist.
The collection includes examples of Chihuly’s best-known themes – the Persian bowls, the chandeliers, the glass balls, the garden ornamentation. The Collection is marked by an iconic 20-foot sculpture Chihuly created for the site.
The gift shop offers art glass, decorative glass, books and videos about Chihuly and the studio glass movement he started. Admission to the Collection includes also gets you into to the Morean Glass Studio and hot shop demonstration at 714 First Ave. N., a short walk away.
Open daily. Tickets $20. Discounts for seniors, students, and youth. Children 5 and under and members free. On the web: moreanartscenter.org/chihuly Phone:
The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg
This museum began with a collection of Dali’s paintings that owned by A. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse of Cleveland, Ohio, who began collecting Dali’s works in 1942 and became friends with the artist and his wife, Gala.
By the mid-1970s, they were ready to donate their collection, but only if the museum receiving it agreed that no part of it would ever be sold. Improbably, a group of citizens in St. Peterburg rallied to bring the collection to their city, which was known at the time only for spring baseball and retirees.
St. Pete beat out large, well-established art museums by promising to keep the Morse’s collection intact. It included at the time 93 oil paintings, 200 watercolor and drawings, and 1,000 prints – plus a 2,500-volume library on Dali and surrealism, some films and other objects by Dali.
Since the museum opened in 1982, it has continued to acquire significant Dali works. A new building for the expanding collection opened in 2011, with a freeform geodesic dome known as “the enigma” built into its side and a spiral staircase based on the Fibonacci sequence.
The view from the enigma’s second-floor windows overlooks St. Petersburg’s marina.
The museum’s permanent collection takes visitors through a retrospective of Dali’s life and work, with examples from each period. A favorite of most visitors is the large oil painting called “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.”
Up close, it’s difficult to see Lincoln’s face, but stand back far enough – almost to the other end of the museum’s long gallery – and you will see the large pixel-like blocks of color transform into the image of Lincoln.
An audio tour is provided to help visitors comprehend and interpret Dali’s often inscrutable work. A small café, outdoor garden with a boxwood labyrinth, and extensive gift shop complete a visit.
Open daily. Tickets $29. Discounts for seniors, students, and youth. Children 5 and under and members free. Local resident specials offered occasionally. Late hours with discounted admission on Thursdays. Closed during the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Visitors must have a timed-entry ticket, available for purchase online. On the web: thedali.org | Phone: 727-823-3767
Museum of Fine Art in St Petersburg
Any discussion of St. Pete’s art scene is incomplete without a mention of the grand dame on the bay, the stately Museum of Fine Art, which opened in 1965.
I describe this museum as a “mini-Met,” a small version of New York’s Metropolitan Museum in its scope. There’s a little of everything in this compact museum:
Ancient artifacts from Mesopotamia; ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Greek and Roman sculpture and pottery; African masks and sculptures; a bit of Japanese and Chinese art, artworks from the European Renaissance, Dutch masters, naturalists and Impressionists, Tiffany glass, 17th century decorative furniture pieces, modern American art, photography and quite a bit more.
The collection is large and what’s on display changes frequently. Museum curators use one gallery to highlight parts of the collection that aren’t always seen.
Unlike the real Met, the MFA is not large. You can see the whole thing in an hour or so – or spend longer and become more familiar with everything in a gallery or two.
I love this museum because the collection is excellent – go for the Monet, stay for the three Georgia O’Keefes, don’t miss the Dutch flower paintings, take in a bit of Asian or African art as a bonus — but it is never overwhelming and rarely crowded. One recent evening, I had most of the galleries to myself.
Open Tuesday-Sunday. Tickets $20. Discounts for seniors, students, Florida educators, military and youth. Children 6 and under and members free. Open late on Thursdays with discounted admission after 5 p.m. The café and museum shop may be temporarily closed due to COVID. On the web: mfastpete.org | Phone: (727) 896-2667
Other art experiences in St. Petersburg, City of Arts
Florida Craft Art, 501 Central Ave. – This large downtown storefront offers a rotating display gallery and works by local artists for sale. Upstairs are working artists’ studios, which are open during Second Saturday Art Walks. Florida Craft Art also offers walking tours of the murals over a four-block area of downtown on Saturdays at 10 a.m. https://floridacraftart.org/
Murals, throughout the city – Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has a list of the most significant murals at https://www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/list/ultimate-list-of-street-art-st-pete. Visitors wanting to know more about a particular mural can download an app from PixelStix that includes many of the city’s murals. https://pixelstix.com/the-mural-galleries-of-st-petersburg-fl/
Craftsman House, 2955 Central Ave. – This gallery, studio and café occupies a renovated Craftsman-style bungalow built in 1918. In addition to an excellent shop where you can purchase works by local artists, the Craftsman House also hosts concerts and other events in the garden. http://www.craftsmanhousegallery.com/Homepage.html
Duncan McClellan Gallery, 2342 Emerson Ave. S – McClellan, an internationally renowned glass artist, lives and works here, where his collection of glass art by nationally and internationally recognized artists is open to the public. Visitors are allowed to watch working glass artists at the McClellan hot shop periodically. The enterprise also supports a mobile hotshop where glass artists demonstrate techniques and talk about the art of blowing and sculpting glass.
Warehouse Arts District, 515 22nd St. S. – This area south of Central Avenue around 22nd Street includes the McClellan Gallery, the ArtsXChange, where artists create and sell their work, and the Morean Center for Clay, which offers classes and space for pottery artists to use wheels and kilns. https://www.warehouseartsdistrictstpete.org/
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Vicki McCash Brennan is a veteran journalist, teacher and mentor to high school journalism advisers for the Journalism Education Association. Vicki spent 25 years in the trenches as a reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The mother of two grown daughters, Vicki is semi-retired and enjoys bicycling, reading, museums and art galleries, sailing and travel with her husband, Jack.