Janet Echelman's reveal strategy, design for St. Pete Pier sculpture draw mixed reaction

Some wonder why she chose Tampa to unveil her design
A view of Janet Echelman's proposed St. Petersburg Pier sculpture at night.
A view of Janet Echelman's proposed St. Petersburg Pier sculpture at night.
Published Jan. 31, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — When it meets on Thursday, the City Council will be asked to approve $300,000 to allow internationally renowned artist Janet Echelman to begin ordering materials to create a mammoth, billowing sculpture at the St. Petersburg Pier.

It will have been a week since Echelman unveiled her design publicly in Tampa, at a regional gathering of the Urban Land Institute.

"It was a little odd," Council Member Darden Rice said of the Tampa reveal.

Phil Graham Jr., president of the Waterfront Parks Foundation, which had objected to the previously proposed site for Echelman's artwork — on charter-protected Spa Beach — thought so too.

"I thought it was odd that this was presented in Tampa," Graham said, emphasizing that he was not speaking for the foundation.

Graham said he understands that it was an opportunity for Echelman, who was a keynote speaker, to showcase her St. Petersburg project. He said, though, "It's just not normally the way things are done."

But Council Member Steve Kornell said he didn't care how and when and where Echelman, a Tampa native whose studio is in Massachusetts, unveiled her St. Petersburg plans.

"She was at a conference. She wanted to go ahead and talk about this new project she's doing,'' he said. "We don't want it to be a secret. We want people all over the world to know that this is going to be in St. Petersburg. It wasn't an unveiling and the official unveiling will happen when the work is installed in St. Petersburg."

"I don't mind the regional approach. If people look that art work up, they'll see it is in St. Petersburg."

Lorna Taylor, CEO of Premier Eye Care, who attended the presentation and "was struck by the beauty of the sculpture as depicted in renderings," also embraced the Tampa unveiling.

"St. Petersburg is an international arts destination. It seems perfectly understandable that Echelman would discuss the Pier sculpture at a well-attended, high profile regional conference on urban planning," she said.

Echelman has a $1.5 million contract to fabricate her aerial net sculpture at the city's $80 million, 26-acre Pier District. Mayor Rick Kriseman has raised $1.2 million in private money to pay for the piece. Taylor is among the donors, who include John Catsimatidis, the New York billionaire who plans to build a 50-story tower downtown.

Kornell is pleased with what he's seen of Echelman's design. "I don't think it is very different from what is proposed and I like it," he said.

"It is larger than the original piece and it will certainly be a dominant feature on the waterfront beyond the Pier," Graham said. "I look forward to studying the plan more closely."

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The work will be 76 feet at its highest point, 428 feet wide at its widest and will require 84 miles of twine and more than a million knots. Infrastructure, including the foundation, lighting and steel pilings, will be paid for by taxpayers. About $1.3 million has been budgeted for this part of the project.

Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby downplayed questions about Echelman's Tampa presentation, saying it was "just the latest rendering."

"The mayor does not care where these latest renderings were unveiled, and hopes she travels the world showing them off,'' he said. "He is looking forward to when the sculpture is unveiled for the world when it rises above the lawn at the Pier."

And while the mayor and others may be sanguine about Echelman's presentation across the bay, some wildlife advocates are again raising concerns about the billowing net sculpture.

Kim Begay, conservation advocate for the Clearwater Audubon Society and a bird rescuer, said any type of netting is dangerous to birds.

"The lights that will be associated with this net sculpture may well attract insects, which will be a danger to nocturnal insectivore — insect-eating — bird species, as well as migrating, tired and hungry birds," she said. "The sheer size, the moving nature of it... birds may have difficulty maneuvering around it. Definitely it's a possibility birds will become entangled."

Echelman says her sculptures, which have been installed in 22 countries on five continents, have never caused harm to birds or other creatures.

"We have consulted a bio-engineering firm that explained how the physical qualities of the artwork do not meet the criteria that would endanger birds," her website states. "Our nets are made of thicker rope with wider net openings than those used to entrap flying birds or other creatures. Our structures are not unlike naturally occurring vines and thickets often found in local forests, and birds are well adapted to avoid these."

Dan Savercool, president of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, said Thursday that the main concern "is attraction by lights to the sculpture during periods of reduced visibility and incidental collisions during periods of high winds.

"It is the lights - we need to focus on the lights."

The title of Echelman's work is Bending Arc.

Taylor said she loves "that the location and name are reflective of the fact that this will be an inclusive art experience open to our entire community." The name comes "out of her hope that the arc of history is bending toward justice. I think the name captures an aspirational hope for all of us."

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