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Dali joins museums taking on new roles to expand fan bases

By Kate Bradshaw
Published: August 21, 2013 Updated: August 21, 2013 at 11:08 AM
Ricky Pence Jr. heads to The Dali Museum for a sceening of "The Big Lebowski" Tuesday night. JASON BEHNKEN / STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG — The Salvador Dali Museum was filled with legions of moviegoers Tuesday night.

This wasn't the standard movie crowd, though. This was a flock of “Achievers,” a title adopted by avid fans of the 1998 film “The Big Lebowski.” Often clad in bathrobes and sipping white Russians, most have seen the movie dozens of times and can quote nearly verbatim the mock film noir about an aging hippie nicknamed The Dude, played by Jeff Bridges.

Until last year, the Beach Theatre in St. Pete Beach was the place to go in Pinellas County for such cult films, but the theater's closure left a void The Dali has been helping to fill. The museum showed Quentin Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction” in June and hopes to screen other cult classics.

The Dali's transformation into a part-time venue for cult movies reflects its expanding role in the community and a larger movement among museums that are stepping outside their traditional roles in the art world to remain relevant and financially viable, especially as recession-driven cuts have hit cultural institutions in many communities across the country.

“In addition to being key parts of the country's educational infrastructure ... museums are also much more serving as community assets, providing a number of services,” said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Alliance of Museums. “It became particularly pronounced when the economy went south five years ago. More museums started picking up the gaps in the safety net.”

Some museums have begun hosting English as a second language, parenting and computer literacy classes. Others galleries provide art therapy for Alzheimer's and post-traumatic stress disorder patients. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago has joined forces with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the evolution of pathogens.

“Museums have had great inroads of reaching their communities in recent years,” Blanton said.

The Dali's screening of cult films “is a prime example.”

As the largest collection outside of Spain of Salvador Dali's mind-bending works, the Dali Museum may not be trying to stop the next epidemic, but it does want to reach out to the community in a way that reflects its mission. Among other regular offerings, the museum hosts yoga classes and a monthly “Our Town” lecture series that has featured newsmakers such as Michael Maltzan, who designed the controversial Lens pier project, and former Mayor Rick Baker. Saturday, the Dali is hosting a sold-out craft beer-tasting event.

The goal is to serve as a venue for events that defy convention, much in the way Dali's work has, and educate the public about his work and that of other creative thinkers.

Of course, bringing people to the museum on a regular basis could help build its membership base.

“There's been a lot of discussion around leveraging the spaces that we have here” to pique the interest of potential members. Greif said. “Hopefully, they'll come back to see the galleries.”

On the other end of the downtown waterfront, the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts has also been opening its doors to residents in nontraditional ways, including a Friday night jazz series and an upcoming nature photography workshop at Boyd Hill Nature Park.

Such events can generate interest among a broader audience that might otherwise be intimidated by a museum setting.

“We're always struggling for an audience,” said David Connelly, a spokesman for the Museum of Fine Arts.

“We always try to connect the performing arts with the visual arts. We hope they do go into the galleries and see the art.”

Fans of movies such as “The Big Lebowski” are happy to see museums stepping outside their traditional roles.

“Dali taking on the role of a screening room is wonderful,” said Lee Palmer, whose car sports a bumper sticker that reads “The Dude Abides,” one of the film's most memorable quotes.

“The [combination of the] culture of the Dali and movies that transcend the 'summer blockbuster' is what our area needs.”

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