Brad Morse and his wife, Mary Ann, in front of the Nature Morte Vivante

Brad Morse '65 and his wife, Mary Ann, in front of Salvador Dali's Nature Morte Vivante

Growing Up with Dali

Brad Morse ’65 helps steward his late parents’ Salvador Dali collection at signature museum

What hung on Brad Morse’s bedroom wall as a teenager: a poster of Ted Williams at Fenway Park or surrealist Salvador Dali’s renowned Nature Morte Vivante oil painting? 

It couldn’t possibly be choice number 2, one might say, given that so many of Dali’s paintings are priceless. (The winning bid on Dali’s Portrait de Paul Eluard was $22.4 million at Sotheby’s London auction in 2011.)  But surprise: Choice number 2 is correct.

Morse, who graduated from Lehigh in 1965 with a degree in mechanical engineering, says Dali’s original Nature Morte Vivante (Still Life–Fast Moving) had been so close to the side of his bed growing up that the headboard’s upholstery tack wore a groove in its frame. 

The 49-inch-by-63-inch painting can now be seen by the approximately 450,000 visitors each year to the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., which was built to house his parents’ Dali collection of more than 2,000 objets d’art, including nearly 100 paintings, 1,000-plus drawings, watercolors, prints, films and designs for clothing, furniture and ballet sets. 

Morse serves on the museum’s executive committee of the board of directors. Despite his weak color vision, not uncommon in men, Morse says he enjoys strolling through the museum admiring the artworks that had covered, floor to ceiling, the walls of his childhood home near Cleveland, Ohio. It was his parents’ hope that their collection remain intact. 

“That dream has been realized,” Morse says, “and that’s really very satisfying, that they were able to not only collect the art, but find a way to give it a home.”

Reynolds and Eleanor Morse developed a close friendship with Salvador Dali.

Reynolds and Eleanor Morse developed a close friendship with Dali. Here, the Morses with Dali at Knoedler's Gallery in New York, 1943

The story starts in 1943, when, as a wedding gift to themselves, Morse’s parents, Reynolds and Eleanor Morse, paid $1,250 for their first Dali, Daddy Longlegs of the Evening–Hope! and $1,700 for the frame, chosen by Dali himself.  The 16-inch-by-20-inch oil on canvas includes seemingly-molten male and female figures, a horse being shot from a cannon, the Winged Victory (Nike of Samothrace), and, like most Dali paintings, other symbolic figures. Eleanor Morse’s parents thought the young couple was crazy to pay $2,950 for a Dali painting.

With the success of Injection Molders Supply Company (IMS), the business that Reynolds Morse had founded, the couple grew their collection and eventually developed a close friendship with Dali and his wife, Gala. The couple had “first pick” of Dali’s New York gallery shows and only bought works they loved. 

Brad Morse recalls his parents once attending an event in New York, leaving him to enjoy dinner with Dali and his entourage at a nearby restaurant. Morse says he found Dali to be an engaging dinner companion who loved being the center of attention—not the Dali often regarded as the “P.T. Barnum of painting” for his flamboyant self-promotion around the world.  

“What I love about Dali is the intellectual side of Dali,” Morse says, pointing to the artist’s embrace of mathematics and science in his works.

Reynolds and Eleanor Morse with Salvador Dali.

The Morses with Dali, 1971.

When the Morses’ Dali collection outgrew their house, they established the Salvador Dali Museum in a wing of the IMS plant, in Beachwood, Ohio, in 1971. The paintings were carefully moved from the house to the IMS wing about a mile to the west.  A special high ceiling was created during construction to house the first tall masterwork.  

By the mid-1970s, the collection again needed more space. The Morses, concerned that estate taxes would likely force them to break up their collection, began looking for a permanent home to keep their collection together. The Florida legislature provided financing to renovate a marine equipment warehouse in St. Petersburg to display the collection and upgrade the city’s image. The plain, thick-walled museum attracted 57,000 visitors in 1982, and by 1999, 225,000 visitors.

 In 2011, a new, $36 million museum opened that doubled the exhibition space and improved hurricane protection. Dali’s friendship with futurist Buckminster Fuller inspired the architecture. When Brad Morse had initially told his mother that planning was underway for the new building, he says she told him, “Very well, but it must have a geodesic dome.” 

Architect Yann Weymouth’s design wraps a huge geodesic glass bubble around a cube structure that showcases a kaleidoscopic view of St. Petersburg. Dali’s infatuation with mathematics and science also is acknowledged in the museum’s helical staircase resembling a DNA strand and an outside Mathematical Garden. The museum earned Michelin Guide recognition as the top-rated museum in the American South.

“My parents spent almost 40 years collecting the works of Dali,” Morse says. “The primary requirement for donating the collection was to not sell Dali’s art to buy something else [deaccession] but to preserve their collection. I have maintained that goal throughout my tenure on the [museum’s] executive committee. Fortunately, all the board members understand that the paintings are the foundation which brings the attendance, and with it, the funds for operating the museum, so deaccessioning has never been an issue.”

The museum is eyeing an expansion.

Story by Karen Walton

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