Last updated: 02:00 PM ET, Fri April 29 2016

St. Petersburg, Florida: An American Artistic Jewel

Destination & Tourism | Charu Suri | April 29, 2016

St. Petersburg, Florida: An American Artistic Jewel

PHOTO: Dale Chihuly's "Float Boat" at the Morean Arts Center. (photo courtesy of the Morean Arts Center)

There is so much more artistic innovation than meets the eye in the Gulf coast city of St. Petersburg, Florida, despite its fairly slender 137 square-mile size.

With five defined arts districts, the city offers both the refined and the experimental practically everywhere you look. 

Few people know, for instance, that the world’s first permanent work of Dale Chihuly is located on the city’s waterfront, in a 10,000 square-foot space called the Morean Arts Center that is nothing short of a kaleidoscope burst of colors.

READ MORE: The Intersection of Disney and Dali on Display in Innovative Exhibit

I spent a marvelous afternoon there with Executive Director Andy Schlauch, who guided me expertly through the wall of orange Persians with red trim, Pendleton trade-blanket inspired Native American baskets of glass, forests of glass with dips and folds so beautiful that they resembled fragile mountainous topography.

“This is a piece of work done with a frit technique,” Schlauch told me, pointing to the multi-colored bubble-like texture rolled into one work. Frit technique, or “powder painting,” is becoming more well-known but Chihuly actually uses it quite extensively. The process involves tinting or coloring the glass by adhering colored powder to larger-grained clear frit and then firing that mixture to produce a multicolored bubble-like effect that looks cooler than lava lamps.

A glass macchia forest, which looks like anything that Alice in Wonderland would have been delighted to get lost in (minus the Cheshire Cat and hookah-smoking caterpillar, although one wonders…) is a sight not to be missed, nestled at the back of one of the many rooms.

And that is just one of the many museums in the city.

If you take a walk along the esplanade from the Marriott Vinoy hotel all the way to the Salvador Dali museum, you’ll pass the almost bucolic-looking Demen’s Landing, which pays homage to the Russian Pyotr Dementyev (the founder of St. Petersburg). On your right is a string of museum pearls, including the fine Museum of Fine Arts, which has its lovely “Art in Bloom” series currently underway.

The Dali museum — with its unmistakable free-form geodesic glass bubble exterior — might well be the pinnacle cultural building in the city, with its current exhibit on the intersection between Disney and Dali well worth the flight. Housing the largest collection of the painter’s work outside Europe, it is a labor of love of Executive Director Dr. Hank Hine, who has an uncanny knack of juxtaposing artists with historical, parallel lives.

If you visit, take the free, guided tour with the docents, or the architectural tour. One of the great things about this museum is that the audio guides are free.

The dining scene in St. Petersburg is also attracting culinary greats like Chef Michael Mina, who obviously loves Florida (he has joints in Miami, notably Hakkasan and Stripsteak at the Fountainbleau hotel). At a recent dinner at Farmtable kitchen in the hip new restaurant, Locale Market, there was collaborative celebration of food and art, which led to several dishes that looked museum-inspired.

Family-style dishes like the Key West Pink Shrimp Toast, (a colorful affair of roasted tri-color beets with locally-sourced produce), and the piece de resistance, a double chocolate bombe made with butter rum cake, lemon Ivoire mousse and a hot cocoa cream that had candied sugar pieces (these were done by pastry chef Alicia Sherrill), showed me that St. Petersburg is an artistic feast for several senses.

READ MORE: Q&A: Susan Costello Explains What's Behind Florida's Hot Streak

Last but not least, take in the mural art tour given by Chad Mize, a multimedia guru who has transformed spaces and is a former gallery owner of Bluelucy. Mize’s take on the St. Petersburg sun and model Twiggy’s famous lash-fringed eyes have transformed what could have been rather dull buildings into something remarkable.

In other words, St. Petersburg — the city crowned as the sunniest place in the country — is not always like the movie “Spring Breakers,” starring Selena Gomez, which was filmed in the Tampa Bay area.

Art buffs may do well to start looking for real estate here. 

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