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Artist Janet Janet Echelman tells St. Petersburg to go big with aerial sculpture for Pier District

ST. PETERSBURG — Janet Echelman, the renowned artist tapped by Mayor Rick Kriseman to build a floating sculpture for the new pier, wants the city to go big with her artwork.

She spoke by phone at Wednesday's meeting of the pier public arts committee, where the members were considering whether to press ahead with a study of what it would take to bring one of her seven-figure sculptures to the new Pier District.

"The goal of the St. Petersburg Pier bringing residents and visitors together is something I find very compelling," Echelman said.

The committee agreed, unanimously recommending to the mayor that the city spend another $37,500 to finish the design, infrastructure analysis and budgeting for the sculpture. This is the second phase of the $75,000 contract the committee approved in February.

But going big could get expensive. Echelman said the city shouldn't settle for one of her smaller pieces, which in the past have cost an estimated $1 million.

Instead, the artist and the committee favored something similar to her larger pieces, such as her $2.6 million sculpture, "Her Secret is Patience," which towers 145 feet into the air in Phoenix, Ariz. Or her $1.7 million Boston sculpture entitled, "As If It Were Already Here."

"Given the scale of the pier," she said, "it would provide a more intimate experience."

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Cost is already an issue for the $66 million Pier District, which has gotten more expensive as city officials keep adding amenities. Kriseman would like to spend up to $14 million more on the pier, if Pinellas County will allow the city to redirect tax increment financing, or TIF funds, that would have once paid for a downtown transportation hub.

Echelman said a larger air sculpture could bring the community together.

"It brings people who don't even know each other to talk to one another," she said. "During the coldest weekend in January in London, a crowd of people were lying under my piece as light filtered through the sculpture.

"And in Boston, people come to see the sculptures in the rain. They've become a phenomenon to share on social media."

Committee members noted that no cost estimate for the sculpture could be made until the second phase of the study is finished. But Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby, said two anonymous donors has already committed to giving about $650,000 to helping the city pay for Echelman's work. Those donors have not been identified, but the arts committee hopes that the proposal from the famous artist will spur more private donors to come forward.

But there are issues beyond cost. In Phoenix, UV rays and general weather conditions damaged that city's Echelman sculpture so much that the materials must be replaced about every seven years at an undisclosed cost.

"That shouldn't be a problem with the Pier sculpture," art committee chairwoman Laura Bryant said. "We've opted to use a UV resistant material."

Even so, officials said the pier's aerial sculpture will require regular inspection and maintenance to ensure that it reaches its 25-year life guarantee. It will also have to stand up to extreme weather. Echelman has said that her sculpture will be able to survive storms, ice and wind speeds of up to 150 mph — but a Category 5 hurricane can exceed that.

According to the feasibility study, the net sculpture can be removed from its anchoring for safe storage in times of extreme stress. Echelman said that won't be necessary. She said that the sculpture will be built in such a way that the entire structure — net, supports and all — will be able to withstand extreme weather.

She noted that with added steel in its supports, the structure could become even stronger. But steel costs money.

"There's a tradeoff between cost and wind resistance," Echelman said.

Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.