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Fundraising effort for Echelman art at Pier faces ticking clock

Published May 4, 2018

About $600,000 in private funds still must be raised to help St. Petersburg acquire one of internationally acclaimed artist Janet Echelman's floating sculptures, planned for Spa Beach.

A small group of influential people is working to boost the project, recently promoting Echelman's work to a packed room at the St. Petersburg Chamber, making telephone calls, meeting with elected officials and underscoring the famous artist's Tampa Bay roots.

Much of the money for one of Echelman's billowing rope sculptures is already assured. The city has set aside $1.3 million for the infrastructure, which will include towering steel posts to support the Tampa native's soaring creation.

Mayor Rick Kriseman, who presented the artist with the key to the city in 2016, has raised an additional $650,000 in pledges. The Public Arts Commission is kicking in $250,000.

There's a sense of urgency about the remaining funds as the city pursues a frenetic pace toward the Pier District's projected grand opening in the fall of 2019.

"We would like to see if we could achieve resolution in the financials by June 1," Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development coordination, told a chamber gathering on April 25.

Ballestra said it would take the Boston-based artist three months to design the sculpture and eight to nine months to fabricate it.

Former Florida House Speaker Peter Wallace and his wife, St. Petersburg Poet Laureate Helen Pruitt Wallace, are part of a core group intent on bringing one of Echelman's pieces — installed in such places as Porto, Portugal, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, and Phoenix, Arizona — to the city.

"I'm confident that the private funding will be available as the council moves forward with approving the contract," Peter Wallace said.

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Wallace, a lawyer, said he had not heard about Echelman's work until she was honored by the Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture & the Arts in 2016.

"I attended and heard an account of her accomplishments and I heard her speak and got to meet with some of her local family members," he said. "I was astonished by the quality of her work and the breadth."

Others are equally rapturous.

Architect Jordan Behar of Behar Peteranecz Architecture, his wife, Kara, and their children saw Echelman's work at the Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

"It is a fascinating sculpture. It is iridescent, where it plays with light the way soap bubbles do. You can see through it and it shifts and moves, so it gives you the feeling of clouds," Kara Behar said.

While there's support for bringing Echelman's work to St. Petersburg, there's some disagreement about where it should go.

Phil Graham Jr., president of the Waterfront Parks Foundation, doesn't want it at Spa Beach.

"It's very impressive and pretty extraordinary work. ... My feeling is that they are placing it in the wrong place," Graham said, emphasizing that he was not speaking for the foundation.

"My reticence is that we are taking another piece of open space, prime space, and we're placing an object in there that, during the daytime, is not going to be attractive because of the supporting poles. All of the prime views of Tampa Bay through North Straub Park will be diminished."

Graham would rather have the sculpture in the Pier District's "activity zone," where families will gather at the splash pad, playground and pavilion.

Wallace believes it "will be a dramatic and extraordinary use of the park along Spa Beach" to have an Echelman sculpture there.

"It will be a draw for families, without a doubt. People will want to be underneath. And when you talk about the use of that park, it will be hand-in-hand with what is happening at the Pier," he said.

At last week's chamber meeting, lawyer Harvey Ford said the Echelman proposal was "a beautiful idea." But, he added, "I would not presume to make the decision to override the wisdom of our founding fathers of our city, or the city code, to do something different with that park than what the code currently provides."

Ford said Spa Beach is designated a passive park, prohibiting permanent structures, that is, anything that will be there for more than six months.

"You are going to have to amend the charter or the city code," he said.

Council member Ed Montanari brought up the issue during the council's Public Services and Infrastructure Committee meeting last week.

City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch said "a substantial change of use" ordinance will be introduced to cover not only the Echelman piece, but also other elements of the pier project. A public hearing would be held, she said.

The Wallaces have teamed up with Kyle Parks, principal of B2 Communications, and Lorna Taylor, CEO of Premier Eye Care, to advocate for the Echelman project.

Taylor told those at the chamber that Echelman's rope sculptures have large holes and will not endanger birds. "It's more like a bush or thicket they would encounter. They very much know how to navigate that," she said. "It's not the type of thing they can get entangled in."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Some fear Spa Beach billowing net sculpture could catch birds and storms

Parks touted the city's recognition for the arts. "For us, economic development-wise, this is our ticket," he said.

Council member Charlie Gerdes agrees. He has asked city staff to investigate Echelman's impact on tourism in places where her art has been installed.

An Echelman installation will "enhance tourism, stimulate economic growth, and promote civic pride," said well known local artist Katee Tully in a letter to Kriseman.

A contract with Echelman could go before the council in June.

Montanari remains skeptical. "And it's nothing about the artist," he told his colleagues. "It's just the art in this high visibility location on our waterfront."

Council member Darden Rice is a fan. "Over the last few weeks and months, I have been warming up to this project more and more ," she said.

"I'm there," Council member Steve Kornell said.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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