ST. PETERSBURG — As the quest to commission the work of acclaimed artist Janet Echelman for the Pier pushes ahead, discontent simmers in art circles.
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The city's Public Arts Commission recently voted to put $37,500 toward an exploratory contract with Echelman, a step that could lead to one of her multimillion-dollar aerial sculptures soaring above the downtown waterfront.
Impressive as her billowing, net-like sculptures may be, some in the city's art community question the wooing of Echelman, a talent far beyond the public art budget of $348,000 allocated for the $66 million Pier District. And critics accuse Mayor Rick Kriseman — who presented Echelman with a key to the city in October — of interfering with the job of the committee charged with selecting artistic works for the 26-acre waterfront attraction.
Kriseman dropped in on a meeting of the Pier public art committee in mid-January. He spoke of the opportunity "to have a world class artist" like Tampa-born Echelman create a piece that would draw visitors from far and wide to the very end of the Pier.
"I am really down here — and I know there's been some talk a little bit about Echelman — but I'm down here to ask you all to seriously consider going in this direction, and if you're supportive of it, to authorize some expenditures of some funds to get that process started," he said, mentioning engineering and other issues that would come into play to install an Echelman sculpture over Tampa Bay.
"We are at a point in the project, where, if this is something that we want to pursue ... if this is something that you all as a committee want to pursue, it's a decision that really, kind of needs to be made now," the mayor said.
At its next meeting, the committee voted to pursue Echelman — whose studio is in Massachusetts — with an initial $75,000 contract that could be broken at the half-way point of $37,500, if the project was infeasible.
Some perceived Kriseman's input as meddling.
"I think it was inappropriate for the mayor to go before the committee and endorse one particular artist and encourage the committee to arrange an exploratory agreement with Janet Echelman," said Ken Rollins, a retired art museum director who owns an art consulting company.
Former City Council member Leslie Curran, owner of the ARTicles and Leslie Curran galleries, said she was concerned that Kriseman had told the committee he could raise funds to get an Echelman piece.
"I love her work, but that's not the process," she said. "For one person to come in and say, 'This is what I want and this is what we're going to do,' really diminishes the process we have worked so long to maintain."
Kriseman's visit to the committee came at a point when members were winding down their months-long search for artists to invite to submit proposals for art in the Pier District. The effort continues, with plans to also post information on the city's website for interested artists to submit their qualifications.
"I think it is a little confusing to do it that way," said Curran, "and it doesn't send any real positive message to any artists that may submit a proposal."
"The problem is, the process is completely backward," said Council member Steve Kornell, who sits on the Public Arts Commission. "It's been very sloppy, very messy and it's going to create some very hard feelings. ... I think it could have been a smoother process. Maybe a more open and fair process."
The question of fairness was raised by artist and instructor Douglas Land in a letter to the committee. The correspondence prompted Ya Levy La'ford, an artist and committee member, to tell her colleagues she wanted "to make sure we're being fair to our community."
She asked: "Do you think it might be useful to look at other artists with respect to Janet and the money that we're suggesting to give to her?. .. I love Janet Echelman too, but maybe there are some points that (Land) made where we should consider looking at other artists."
"We are," said committee chair Laura Bryant.
Internationally known sculptor Jon Hair, who opened his St. Pete Sculpture Museum and studio in the city about a year ago, would like to be considered. He claimed that during a visit to his museum months ago, Kriseman and Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the Greater St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, asked him to create a concept for the Pier.
"We want something that would draw people from around the country," Hair recalled them saying. "They said, 'Think in terms of $3 to $5 million.'"
"My concept is for a monumental sculpture which would be produced by St. Pete artists, right here in St. Pete, creating 30 to 40 jobs for local artists, for a three-year period," he said in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times.
The $6 million sculpture — a bronze, 108-foot-long, 30-foot-high blue whale surrounded by life-size marine creatures — would pay for itself and make $9 million for the city from visitors coming to see it being created, he said.
Hair said the mayor has not responded to his idea and believes local artists are being overlooked.
Not everyone is concerned.
Mark Aeling, another internationally known sculptor and president of the board of the Warehouse Arts District Association, said there is "a lot of misunderstanding about the process" and the work of the Pier public art committee.
"They haven't made any conclusive decisions," said Aeling, who owns MGA Sculpture Studio. They are all good people. ... They are still assessing what would be best."
That could mean working with the official budget of $348,000 for art on the Pier itself. Consider that an Echelman sculpture installed in a Phoenix park in 2016 cost about $2.6 million. The mayor had envisioned an Echelman piece at the Pier head, but permitting issues may rule that out, forcing a sculpture further west.
Meanwhile, Wayne Atherholt, the city's director of cultural affairs, says Kriseman has a commitment of $650,000 from two donors for an Echelman piece. Art also is being planned for the Pier approach and Bryant said she will try to raise private donations to boost its current $140,000 budget.
There's a chance for even more money. The mayor would like to tap into $14 million in tax increment financing funds set aside for a transportation hub that will no longer be built. He hopes to use at least $1.3 million for what is being described as "signature art" for the new Pier.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at @firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.
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