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St. Petersburg's mayor wants to bring renowned artist to Pier, but at what cost?

St. Petersburg Mayor Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to commission internationally renowned artist and Tampa native Janet Echelman to install one of her voluminous floating sculptures at the Pier, where it would float above Tampa Bay. This piece is called Her Secret is Patience, a 145-ft-tall lighted aerial sculpture erected in 2009 in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. [Courtesy of Janet Echelman]
St. Petersburg Mayor Mayor Rick Kriseman wants to commission internationally renowned artist and Tampa native Janet Echelman to install one of her voluminous floating sculptures at the Pier, where it would float above Tampa Bay. This piece is called Her Secret is Patience, a 145-ft-tall lighted aerial sculpture erected in 2009 in downtown Phoenix, Ariz. [Courtesy of Janet Echelman]
Published Feb. 5, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pier District is the city's quest to build a world-class attraction, and that means acquiring world-class public art.

That's why Mayor Rick Kriseman has urged a public arts committee to hire internationally renowned artist and Tampa native Janet Echelman to install one of her voluminous, floating sculptures at the Pier, where it would float above Tampa Bay.

Echelman's work, displayed in places like the Smithsonian, a waterfront in Portugal and in a Phoenix park, is pricey. The Phoenix piece billows 145 feet into the sky and is illuminated with colored lights that change from season to season.

Named Her Secret Is Patience, the aerial sculpture cost about $2.6 million.

The mayor already wants to boost the Pier District's $66 million price tag to $80 million.

Could bringing Echelman's art to St. Petersburg make the Pier even more expensive?

• • •

The Pier Public Art Project Committee is working with a meager budget of $468,000. Of that, $348,000 is set aside for art on the Pier itself — which is where Kriseman wants Echelman's work showcased.

"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," the mayor told the committee during its Jan. 18 meeting. "It's always going to be different . . . really cool."

The mayor said his goal is to see the artwork erected above the Pier head itself, the new structure that will jut out into the water from the Pier approach.

"We really want to draw people out to the Pier head itself . . . ," Kriseman said. "The Pier head makes the most sense. If it can be done."

And that depends on everything from getting required regulatory agency permits for a soaring, large net-like creation on a waterfront where seabirds are abundant, and for the extra piles that may be required to anchor the sculpture.

Cost is another factor. But Kriseman has expressed confidence that he can raise the money to bring an Echelman piece to the city.

The Pier District's current price tag is $66 million. But the mayor is seeking an additional $14 million from Pinellas County to add amenities. The money would come from tax increment financing, or TIF funds, that had been set aside for a transportation hub that will no longer be built. The Pinellas County Commission has yet to agree to reallocate the funds, but Kriseman said this week he has approached commissioners individually and believes he has their support.

The $14 million will pay for "enhancements," a wish list that includes $1.3 million for a "signature art element" at the Pier and an additional $55,000 for an "additional public art contribution." That would bring the Pier's total price tag to $80 million.

Could Echelman's sculpture add to that price tag? Ben Kirby, a spokesman for the mayor, said the cost of the artist's work will be covered by the extra $14 million in funds.

But Kriseman told the Pier art committee that he is willing to approach private donors to help pay for it.

"I think the work of this incredibly outstanding artist, who just happens to be from this area, is an opportunity that we have to get a world-class artist . . . in our city," he said Jan. 18. "Permanently."

• • •

The Pier site will be "one of the most beautiful for my artwork anywhere in the world," Echelman said. "It would be my first artwork completely surrounded by water. And how exciting for that water to be Tampa Bay, the place of my birth."

On Wednesday, the public art committee decided to pursue a $75,000 exploratory contract with Echelman that would allow her to work up a preliminary budget and research engineering and other requirements.

The contract is in two phases, costing $37,500 each. If committee members decide not to go ahead with the work, phase two — which calls for more detail and will lead to a complete project — will be dropped.

But there is opposition. City Council member Steve Kornell sits on the city's Public Arts Commission, which will be asked to fund phase one. He doesn't agree with this approach.

"The process is all backwards," he said. "I think we should decide on the $14 million before we enter into this contract with Janet Echelman.

"First of all, I'm shocked that we would enter into any sort of a contract that isn't in the allocated budget. I think it is very fiscally irresponsible of the mayor to create that sort of expectation," he said, adding the City Council has yet to vote on the mayor's expanded Pier budget.

Pier public art committee chairwoman Laura Bryant, who also sits on the Public Arts Commission with Kornell, will ask the body to pay for the first part of the $75,000 contract. Entering into a preliminary contract with Echelman is the only way to know if the project is feasible, she said.

"If we get to the point this all looks good," Bryant said, "we can find the money, we can get the permits for this, that this is a doable thing within our footprint, then the second half of that would be her making a visual model of what the actual piece will look like."

Kornell isn't the only one questioning the endeavor. Douglas Land, an artist and art instructor who often attends Pier art meetings, emailed his concerns to the committee.

"It is important to make every attempt to stay within proposed public art budgets," he wrote, "make the selection process fair and open, especially for local artists, and to avoid any appearance of favoritism."

An artist herself, Bryant said she is "all for local artists." But pursuing Echelman is an opportunity "to get a really significant piece" from a well-known and well-regarded artist.

"Because of who she is and because she really wants to work with us," Bryant said, "all of those things are maybe creating the perfect opportunity and that's why we were interested in pursuing it with Janet."

• • •

"This is a homecoming for me," said Echelman, who has close family in St. Petersburg.

Echelman was born in Tampa. Her studio is in Massachusetts.

Her permanent outdoor sculptures in the United States can be seen in Greensboro, N.C., Phoenix and Seattle. She is currently creating the new Gateway Sculpture for Austin, Texas. Her major sculpture was acquired for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

In October, she received the International Achievement award from the Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture & the Arts. Kriseman presented her with the key to the city.

Echelman would work with a team of structural and aeronautical engineers and lighting designers to design the St. Petersburg piece, but said it was too early to discuss cost.

"We haven't designed it yet," she said. "There are variables in terms of size, materials, number of sculptural layers, installation methods, that will determine the cost."

She uses "the same material as they use for astronauts' spacesuits" for her pieces.

The Pier District is an "extraordinary fit" for her work, "which is animated by the movement of wind and light and creates reflections on water," Echelman said. "We can engineer the sculpture to withstand more force than the strongest hurricane ever seen in Florida."

For Echelman, this would be the opportunity of a lifetime.

"I have been creating artworks for countries all over the world, from London to New York and Singapore to Sydney," she said, "but this will be the first sculpture for the place where I grew up. Nothing could make me happier than to bring my art home."

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

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