Florida Matters Staycations: St. Petersburg Museums

Aug 18, 2017

St. Petersburg’s flourishing arts scene is recognized by travel writers across the U.S.

Most recently, readers of the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle were clued in on something Tampa Bay residents have known for years; St. Pete is home to world-famous museums and dozens of art galleries.  If you haven’t ventured to the city’s downtown recently, you might be surprised how much the arts scene has grown.

And, there are at least three more major museums coming to St. Pete.

WUSF’s Cathy Carter recently got some tips on a St. Pete art- filled staycation  from Wayne Atherholt, the city’s Director of Cultural Affairs.

Carter: “Wayne, from your office at City Hall in St. Pete, there are dozens of things to see and do in terms of art in the city. If someone were to ask you what they should do first, what would you recommend?”

Wayne Atherholt is Cultural Affairs Director for the City of St. Petersburg.
Credit City of St. Petersburg

Atherholt: “Oh I think absorbing the whole atmosphere of St. Petersburg because the entire city is a museum now. We've got these wonderful murals all over the city and all over downtown so you get a feeling that this is a really cool, fun place. There's all sorts of different opportunities here for a staycation but get a lay of the land and sort of feel your way around first.”

Carter: “Okay, now that we’ve done that, let’s head over to the city’s most famous museum. The Salvador Dali has the largest collection of his art outside of his home country of Spain. What are some of your favorite things about this museum?”

Atherholt: “Oh I think the nice thing about the Dali is the docent tours and you can take a dozen docent tours and come away with a dozen different experiences. So whether you're into Surrealism or Realism or Cubism, any style really, Dali experimented with them. He's also done some wonderful impressionist pieces so there is something there for everybody. You don't necessarily have to be an art person to really walk away with a terrific experience because the docents make it very real and understandable and I think that's one of the reasons why the museum has been so successful. Dali’s life is interesting but his technique is also very interesting and crosses all ages too.”

Carter: “And they have that amazing museum shop.”

Atherholt: “The store is incredible and it's one of those unique things about St. Petersburg. You can't find some of those things anywhere else. And of course the building designed by Yann Weymouth is such a great space and you can go to the museum's little cafe and have a glass of wine if you want.”

Carter: “Alright, well let's walk down the street a little bit to the Morean Arts Center and the new building for the Chihuly Collection. Tell us a bit about the new digs.”

Atherholt: “The new facility is right across from the Morean Art Center itself and right across from the Morean’s glass studio. Dale Chihuly is an international artist and there are some phenomenal installations in the new space which is of course designed around the exhibits, which really helps. You've got the Pacific Northwest wood, and so you've got the smells of the wood and so forth all interacting with this incredible artwork. Besides glass, there's two dimensional pieces too. You can go across the street then to the Morean Glass Studio & Hot Shop and you see local artists blowing glass, so you get a little bit of an appreciation for what Dale Chihuly must have done in his early career as a as a glass blower in Italy and in Washington.”

A visit to the Morean Glass Studio & Hot Shop is an opportunity to observe resident glass artists creating unique works of art.
Credit Flickr

Carter: “I'm glad you brought that up because I think if somebody does go to the Chihuly Collection they should certainly go over and see some of the local glassblowers. It's a fascinating process to watch.”

Atherholt: “Absolutely, and I would certainly encourage anybody to do that. The glassblowing demonstrations are about 40 to 45 minutes long and all done by local artists. There's a terrific store there as well where you can pick up an original hand-blown glass piece that is blown right here in St. Petersburg. And the art center itself has got always some sort of an exhibit and the Morean Center for Clay in the train station building on 22nd Street is the largest working pottery studio in the southeastern United States.”

Carter: “When we talk about the big three right now for St. Pete museums, we have to include the MFA. Tell us a little bit about what you enjoy about the Museum of Fine Arts?”

Atherholt: “Well, it is an excellent museum in that it has a very broad collection. You can go there and see artifacts, see paintings, modern art, sculptures and they've got a terrific Steuben Glass collection. There's usually a photography exhibit up and they have traveling exhibitions too, the Star Wars costume one is coming up, so there's always something there. Most cities would be very lucky to have such a well-rounded museum as part of their city.”

The James Museum of Wildlife and Western Art is scheduled to open in downtown St.Petersburg in early 2018.
Credit The James Museum of Wildlife and Western Art

Carter: “I think we have enough to do with our staycation in St. Pete this summer, but I don't want to let you go without talking about some of the newer museums that are set to open in the city. Can you give us a bit of a sneak peek?”

Atherholt: “Absolutely, we will be adding the Imagine Museum which is a studio glass museum, a 30,000 square foot facility in the Grand Central District. That will be opening probably by the end of this year. The Tom and Mary James Museum of Wildlife And  Western Art is one of the best collections of western and wildlife art in the United States and that will be opening up right downtown. And then there's also the American Arts and Crafts Movement Museum which is the best collection probably outside of the Victorian Albert Museum in London. It's a great addition for St. Petersburg because we've got some wonderful bungalow style neighborhoods from this period when St. Petersburg went through one of its several different boom periods in the 1920's when the Arts and Crafts movement was so popular. That's going to be a terrific facility in terms of value. I believe that's probably an 80 or 90 million dollar project. These are very significant things and we've got three of them coming in right after the other. So in terms of a staycation, comeback because there's always going to be something different to see.”