The lights are usually kept low at night at Eckerd College. It’s part of an effort to use less electricity — and also helps to keep birds and turtles from becoming disoriented on the bayside campus.
But the spotlights were turned all the way up one night last month for the grand opening of the college’s new Helmar and Enole Nielsen Center for Visual Arts. Hundreds of faculty and donors were in attendance to see the gleaming new $17 million facility. It did not disappoint.
The 33,000-square-foot center sits in the heart of campus and overlooks a large pond crisscrossed by ospreys and white egrets. It is meant to blend gracefully with the landscape, both visually and ecologically. The college’s many biologists wouldn’t have it any other way.
But it’s safe to say that the arts faculty are pretty pleased, too.
"I’m so amazed," said artist and Eckerd professor Kirk Ke Wang. "This (building) will absolutely change my pedagogy. … If I could, I would bring my futons in, and stay here."
Wang may have been kidding, but the sense of ownership he feels is real. He and several other professors had direct input in the center’s design, and its final shape reflects their vision.
In addition to new workshops and studios, the center features two galleries that will be open to the public. This is significant for the greater St. Petersburg area, explained Robbyn Mitchell Hopewell, Eckerd’s director of media and public relations.
"The majority of the city’s art spaces are in the downtown St. Pete area," she said. "But there’s a large population in south St. Petersburg, the beach communities, Gulfport and so on. These areas are underserved in terms of exhibition spaces.
"Having more places to show art on the southern end of the county will be a great resource."
Two recent shows have allowed residents to see the new center in action. "Hodgell Abroad," which ended Monday, featured the work of revered founding faculty member Robert Hodgell. And down the hall is a buoyant piece designed for the space by new Eckerd instructor Jason Hackenwerth.
Levitant: A Balloon Sculpture is made up of thousands of latex balloons woven into something like a giant coral polyp. It rotates and drifts above the floor of the new gallery. Insider tip: Viewers can clamber underneath the edge of the sculpture and view it from within, bathed in a pinkish glow. "I won’t say no," Hackenwerth said.
Hackenwerth is internationally known for his balloon sculptures. They have also graced the inside of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But at Eckerd he is teaching a printmaking class, and he was excited to break in the new atelier.
"I showed up on the doorstep right at the right time," he said.
Longtime professors such as ceramicist Brian Ransom are able to chart just how much the campus has been transformed.
"For the first 15 years I was here, we were in the equivalent of a double-wide (trailer)," he said. Ransom, who makes musical instruments out of clay, now has 11 kilns to play with in a huge open-air pottery yard.
He reeled off an example of how the new facility could be used. "You can make (an instrument’s body) in the ceramics studio, then go over to the woodshop to make the fingerboard, and then transition up to the sound lab to record it," he said.
"There’s a lot of interest right now in interdisciplinary art ... and this will help so much."
The center’s vast possibilities are also evident to naming trustee Helmar E. Nielsen, who roamed the halls during the grand opening.
"It’s nice to have a building you can get lost in," he said with a smile.
Nielsen’s $7 million gift put his and his daughter’s names on the walls of the center.
"I really believe in the humanities," said Nielsen, who owns a public safety and parking management software company. "A study of the humanities can prepare you for success in whichever field you go into."
A high proportion of Eckerd’s 1,993 enrolled students are in the sciences. But the highly visible new art center has the power to impact the college’s profile — and make St. Petersburg a more attractive destination for all students.
On the night of the grand opening all of that was secondary to the building itself, with its sheets of glass, sawtooth roof and clerestory windows.
"I’m so proud of this new building," said Eckerd president Donald R. Eastman III. "It’s state of the art, but it’s also an art object itself."