An artificial intelligence-powered version of late Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali will soon greet and talk to visitors and take photographs with them at the museum dedicated to his work in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Salvador Dali Museum, which houses more than 2,000 pieces of his art and other items, including oil paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints, photographs, sculptures, documents, books and art objects, will have an additional attraction starting May 11, the 115th birth anniversary of Dali (1904-1989).
“Dali Lives” is an AI-based virtual reality experience that allows museum visitors to interact with a lifelike Dali, who looks as he did at around age 50 and speaks English with a strong accent and a surprising hint of Mexican Spanish.
“I do not believe in my death. Do you?” the AI replica of Dali says from one of the screens installed at the museum for this unique experience.
The executive director of St. Petersburg’s Salvador Dali Museum, California native Hank Hine, said his generation is accustomed to observing art in two dimensions but that young people are looking to interact digitally with the works.
The institution he leads is an example of how museums are now changing with the times.
The museum houses a valuable collection of “Dalis” amassed by businessman and philanthropist Albert Reynolds Morse and his wife Eleanor Morse, who were not only major collectors of his work but also became friends with the Spanish artist and his muse, Gala, beginning in the 1940s.
Decades later, the Morses sought out a permanent home for their collection and that led them to St. Petersburg, which is unique among cities on Florida’s West Coast because of these artistic treasures that attract some 40,000 visitors annually.
The museum, which first opened its doors in 1982 at a site near its current location, now is looking to expand so it can organize other experiences similar to “Dali Lives.”
“Dali was prophetic in many ways and understood his historical importance,” Hine said.
“He once wrote, ‘If someday I may die, though it is unlikely, I hope the people in the cafes will say, ‘Dali has died, but not entirely.’” Hine said, explaining that this project to revive the artist was possible thanks to the museum’s partnership with San Francisco-based creative company Goodby Silverstein & Partners.
For the project, an AI algorithm “learned” all different aspects of Dali’s face and facial expressiveness from footage taken from historical interviews, talks and comments by the Spanish artist.
The next step was to seek out an actor with a body and physical presence similar to that of Dali.
The expressions and facial features were then overlaid on the actor with the help of AI to “revive” an artist who considered himself the greatest painter of his era, though at the same time very inferior to the Renaissance masters and Diego Velazquez.
Unlike in other museums around the world, it is not prohibited to take photos at the Salvador Dali Museum of St. Petersburg. And in fact the virtual Dali encourages visitors to take selfies, Hine says.
The director said a museum that is not capable of accepting visitors on their own terms will be entirely unappealing and become a “dead” museum.
He and the museum’s board of directors are therefore trying to convince authorities in that city of 250,000 people and the state of Florida to partially cover the cost of a planned expansion project that would increase the space for exhibitions and interactive experiences by 67 percent.
The foundation that operates the museum would provide half of the funding for that proposed project, which has already been designed and has an estimated cost $35 million.