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Florida Galleries Are Closed to This Visitor

The Salvador Dali Museum, on the water with $200 million in art, takes special precaution.

October 23, 2005|Carlos Sadovi | Chicago Tribune

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As Hurricane Wilma looms in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Joan R. Kropf is among the worried.

She is deputy director of the Salvador Dali Museum, which houses more than $200 million in one-of-a-kind art in a warehouse on this city's Bayboro Harbor. The museum holds the largest collection of artworks from the 20th century surrealist outside of his native Spain in the converted marine storage warehouse.

"We are right on the water and the water rises; the roof on the building is a lightweight state of the art roof that could be sucked up by the wind," she said. "It's an absolute nightmare."

If there were a direct hit on the building, the collection of 96 oil paintings, 125 water colors, 1,500 prints and 100 other art pieces including rare books linked to one of the last century's most famous and sought-after artists could be damaged or destroyed. Although the collection is insured, Kropf knows the artworks could never be replaced.

Like most residents along the coast, she has been keeping a constant watch on the storm, which is set to hit the coast Monday.

Although many of Dali's paintings were smaller pieces, many of the surrealist pieces, known as his masterworks, are oils on canvases that are more than 13 feet high and 13 feet across.

Moving one of these paintings to a second-floor concrete vault requires six people to take it off the wall, slide it into a large chamois envelope and put it on a hydraulic easel, where it is slid into a waterproof box.

"Moving the large paintings is like managing a sail," Kropf said.

It takes a team of nearly 15 people about five hours to batten down the entire collection. Each time the art is moved it is at risk of damage. Any nick, any scrape can mean thousands of dollars in restoration work or worse, she said. Lately the smallest paintings have fetched millions at auction.

"You don't want to move the paintings too often because they take a jostling," she said.

In the nearly 35 years Kropf has been with the museum, which moved here in 1982 from Cleveland, she has had to move them several times. Although she has faced more than 20 hurricanes, last year was particularly stressful.

When hurricanes Charley, Frances and Ivan hit the area, it meant clearing out the collection three times.

The museum is raising money to build a new structure about three miles away, but this time the collection will be going on higher floors.

"I'm getting so tired about worrying about hurricanes I can't stand it anymore," she said. "In Ohio all we had to worry about were snowstorms."

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