When I visited St. Petersburg for the first time last year, I wasn’t expecting to find the trendy, eclectic shopping mecca that I discovered in the Arts District on Central Avenue. But this wasn’t the only surprise in store for me – it turns out that there’s an artsy St. Petersburg, too, and one that includes everything from fine art to gritty graffiti with a little bit of everything else in between.
Downtown St. Petersburg Museums
You can’t mention St. Petersburg without including the Dalì Museum – an impressive building that houses the largest permanent collection of Salvador Dalì paintings, photographs and oversized masterworks outside of Europe. If you’re a fan of surrealism and want to expand your knowledge of Dali beyond the famous ‘melting clocks’ that you probably associate with him, the Dalì Museum is a must-see when visiting St. Pete. (In fact, I devoted an entire post to my own visit). Located at the southern end of Beach Drive opposite the waterfront harbour in downtown St. Petersburg, it is part of a mini ‘museum-row’ that also includes two other museums well worth seeing.
The Museum of Fine Art
With 20,000 objects in its permanent collection and a full roster of touring exhibitions, the Museum of Fine Art offers something for everyone, whenever you might be visiting St. Petersburg. But even with its robust collection, the MFA is small enough so as not to be overwhelming (I have a 2-hour ‘saturation limit’ to any museum, after which everything starts to blur no matter how significant the piece may be).
If you’re a fan of paintings, you’ll enjoy viewing canvases that run the gamut from Southwest artist Georgia O’Keeffe to European masters like Renoir, Cézanne and Monet.
For ceramics and sculpture lovers, the museum’s collection includes pre-Colombian works, Native American pottery, Greek and Asian artifacts, and if photography is your passion, the MFA has one of the largest and most significant collections in the Southeastern United States.
The Chihuly Collection
If you’ve ever been to the Bellagio in Las Vegas, you’ve already been introduced to artist Dale Chihuly’s work, in the beautiful overhead glass ‘garden’ titled Fiori di Como in the main reception area of the hotel. In fact, Chihuly’s large-scale blown glass sculptures are found all over the world from Venice to Finland. But his first permanent exhibit is located in downtown St. Petersburg in a building designed specifically to house The Chihuly Collection.
Although small as museums go, the works inside the Chihuly Collection are anything but. As vibrant in colour as they are monumental in scale, these blown glass objects come alive in the dimly lit rooms and galleries that provide the perfect backdrop for their illuminated forms.
Suspended ‘chandeliers’ are a favourite theme for Chihuly, and the St. Petersburg museum has several, including a blue neon one that takes a different approach when it comes to light, but shows the same organic forms used in the glass works. (I decided to take a different approach to viewing it as well!)
NOTE: The Chihuly Collection is currently located at the north end of Beach Drive at the opposite end of ‘museum row’ from the Dalì Museum. But if you are planning a visit in 2016, the Chihuly Collection will be relocating to a larger space on Central Avenue in the fall of 2016 and will likely close for several weeks before the move. Check with their website if you are planning a visit at this time.
Morean Arts Center
It’s in large part thanks to the Morean Arts Center that St. Petersburg has become the ‘artsy city’ that it is today. (In fact, the Morean Arts Center is responsible for managing the Chihuly Collection as one of its more recent contributions). But its history as an advocate and innovator in the artistic community of St. Pete’s goes much further back.
Dating back to 1917, The Morean Arts Center is the oldest arts organization in the Tampa Bay area, whose core belief is that art can help unify communities. This philosophy is brought to life by offering hands-on workshops in all kinds of artistic expression, from glass blowing in their Glass Studio & Hot Shop, to Raku instruction at the Morean Center for Clay.
Whether you decide to take a class to explore your own creativity, watch a glass blowing demonstration, or just enjoy the local art on display in their Central Avenue location, the Morean Arts Center is an essential part of the arts culture of St. Petersburg and well worth a visit.
Shopping for art? Try Florida Craft Art.
If you are like me, and like to bring home something that reflects the local art scene where you are visiting, you’ll want to check out Florida Craft Art on Central Avenue. This store/studio/workshop is actually the showpiece of a non-profit organization headquartered in St. Petersburg that supports independent artists and educates them in the business of art. Even if you’re not an artist, members enjoy free admission to cultural attractions and a discount at the retail store.
The retail store here is a treat to browse, featuring a well-curated collection of handcrafted artwork, jewelry, clay, glass, and other objets d’art that are truly unique. But don’t think ‘crafts’ mean macrame plant holders and hand-crocheted tea cozies. These ‘fine craft’ pieces are stunningly beautiful, creative and inspired. Some are whimsical, some are sophisticated, and some will have you wishing your credit card had a higher limit.
Florida Craft Art also sponsors Art Walks and hosts mural tours for visitors who want a guided tour of the artsy side (literally) of some of St. Petersburg’s downtown buildings.
Speaking of Street Art
The mark of any arts-centric destination seems to be the quality and abundance of public art and St. Petersburg has its fair share of street murals in the Central Avenue Arts District. Unfortunately, I didn’t know there was a guided tour, which I would have loved to take since it offers a much more informed experience (like the Graffiti Tour I did here in Toronto). But it was still great discovering these murals on my own and discussing with the local businesses how the street art is helping to revitalize the district. Here are a few samples I captured:
From Fine Art to Street Art, St. Petersburg showed me a creative side that I wouldn’t have expected from a city known more for its sand than its artisans. But then again, this Florida city has proven more than once that it is full of surprises so the fact that it has an artsy vibe really shouldn’t surprise me at all!
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.