ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman started the new year by imploring the committee charged with selecting artwork for the new Pier District to go big: They should pursue renowned artist Janet Echelman to create one of her lighted aerial sculptures for the new pier.
"The designs that she does have energy to them and the location being over the waterfront, over water, creates that energy and it is always going to have a life," Kriseman said during the Pier Public Art Project Committee's Jan. 18 meeting. "It's always going to be different ... really cool."
Eight months later, the city's quest for an Echelman masterpiece raises questions about its potential cost and a selection process that seemingly guarantees that the Tampa-born artist will get the commission to erect what the city is envisioning as a seven-figure "signature art element"— without competition.
Commissioning an Echelman piece dovetails with Kriseman's plan to make the new pier a "world class" destination. At his behest, the City Council is asking Pinellas County to dedicate an extra $10 million for Pier District "enhancements," among them a stand-out piece of public art. The Pinellas County Commission is scheduled to consider that request on Sept. 14.
Tucked into the city's request is a $1.3 million allocation that, city architect Raul Quintana said, is earmarked for the engineering and infrastructure needed to install one of Echelman's famous, billowing sculptures.
But why has the city designated $1.3 million for an Echelman sculpture that she has not yet been officially hired to create?
Meanwhile, the pier art committee — appointed specifically to select public art for the 26-acre Pier District — is still settling on a list of finalists to create other works of art for the project with a substantially smaller budget of $488,000.
"We don't know yet if the Echelman piece is going to work," said mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby. "However, if it doesn't work, the money will be spent on a different signature art element."
The result is that there are two different processes in place for selecting art for the Pier District: One is focused on acquiring the Echelman piece, which Kirby said could cost more than $2 million. The other will award a minimum of two commissions from the separate, smaller budget of $488,000.
While the pier public art committee "supports the city's interest" in an Echelman piece, Kirby said the group's process is "separate" for selecting other artwork.
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In February, the committee recommended an initial two-part, $75,000 contract with Echelman for a feasibility study, preliminary designs and budget for her sculpture. Half of that payment — $37,500 — came from the $488,000 pier public art budget set aside to commission other work.
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Former City Council member Leslie Curran, who once sat on the Public Arts Commission, is puzzled by the way Echelman was chosen.
"It's been a very confusing process," said the owner of the ARTicles and Leslie Curran galleries. "I think the arts community and the public are used to seeing a call for artists going out one way, and when this commission took this approach, it just took some people off guard.
"The goal should always be to get the best work of art for the city of St. Petersburg, but also the goal needs to be to go about the process in an open, direct manner that everyone understands and is comfortable with."
Curran is supporting Kriseman's rival, former Mayor Rick Baker, in Tuesday's mayoral primary.
But former City Council member Jeff Danner, who sits on the Public Arts Commission, said the process "does allow other scenarios" for commissioning public art.
It's "a little bit of a hybrid, where it has been stated that we want the Echelman piece, but then have also opened it up in case someone else wants to apply ....," Danner said. "It's still an open process. It's not a done deal as it may be perceived. It's also a tricky deal, because we are mixing the public dollars with private dollars."
Danner has not said which candidate he supports in the mayoral race, noting: "I don't believe that should be a factor in the commissioners' decision-making process for this piece."
The Echelman sculpture will likely exceed the city's proposed $1.3 million budget for "signature art." Kriseman has raised $650,000 from anonymous donors for an Echelman piece and "may" attempt to raise more money, Kirby said, adding: "He's not right now."
An Echelman sculpture in Phoenix, Her Secret Is Patience, cost $2.6 million in 2009. With the $1.3 million already designated in taxpayer money, there still could be a shortfall of funds.
"It is too premature to worry about where any additional money may come from," Kirby said, "or even if we will need it until feasibility is complete, but no additional public money will be used."
Kirby added that if more money is needed, Wayne Atherholt, the city's director of cultural affairs, believes "we can raise that from the community."
The pier has, of course, become a campaign issue. Baker has criticized Kriseman's vision for the new pier and accused him of overspending on the currently budgeted $66 million project.
"Echelman is a great artist and there may be a place downtown for her artwork," Baker said in a statement from his campaign. "However, Rick Kriseman has created a pier that is already tens of millions over budget before proposing her artwork. I also believe local artists should be a component of our pier and the art should have been factored into the initial cost proposed to taxpayers."
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Echelman, whose studio is in Massachusetts, has won acclaim for her sculptures. But they're ambitious projects.
The Phoenix sculpture almost never happened. According to the Arizona Republic, it was cancelled by the city manager's office, which said it involved complex engineering and would delay the opening of the park at which it was planned. Supporters rallied to save the project and it was installed in 2009. Now a city of Phoenix website describes it as a "monumental" work.
"There's always a challenge in the lead-up to a bold vision," Echelman said. "I am not unaccustomed to a thorough exploration as a city makes this decision. The results seem to be very positive worldwide."
Other examples of her permanent works include Water Sky Garden at the Richmond Olympic Oval in Vancouver, Canada, Impatient Optimist at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Wash., and She Changes in Porto, Portugal.
"A significant artwork can have a positive impact and it's not always easy to quantify that impact, even though it is qualitatively observed by everyone" Echelman said. "The broader question is of value, not cost."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.