Romano: How long before you take a selfie in front of pier art?

Published January 13 2018
Updated January 15 2018

You go to Harvard to study art. You move to Hong Kong and Bali to further your education. You are invited by the Fulbright Scholar Program to lecture about art in India.

Finally, you return to the United States where you are asked to produce a sculpture that will serve as the centerpiece of a large city park in a thriving downtown in the American West.

And someone says it resembles cow poop.

Or a jellyfish.

Also a condom.

Welcome to Janet Echelmanís world.

And perhaps the St. Petersburg waterfront.

In this case, the monument to cow patties was a floating sculpture of colorful nets suspended above a new park in downtown Phoenix. And, similar to the conversation about Echelmanís proposed artwork for St. Peteís Pier District, the initial chatter in Phoenix was mixed, at best.

This was more than 10 years, and several prestigious awards, ago. Back then, there were people ridiculing Echelmanís concept for Phoenix as too expensive and too weird. Also, there were questions about its durability and susceptibility to the elements.

Sound familiar?

Echelmanís $2.4 million Phoenix proposal was briefly canceled by the city managerís office in 2007 before public outcry revived the idea within a week. Itís now been standing for almost nine years.

"The conversation we had in Phoenix is one you can find anywhere in the nation when youíre talking about newer works that defy expectations and have never been seen before,íí said Ed Lebow, the public art program director at the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture.

"I canít speak for everybody, but Ö the lighting for it is beautiful, itís a very soft, colorful glow that is quite subtle. Itís beautiful during the daytime too, but it is very popular at night.íí

The best art is rarely universal. To create something special, you literally need to color outside the lines. Itís the difference between the comfort of a chain restaurant and the uniqueness of a local favorite.

This type of criticism is nothing new for Echelman. Itís the price of creating something unique.

The reward, she says, is when the sculpture is completed and people can experience it firsthand instead of trying to critique a rendering.

"The (Phoenix) city manager recently introduced me for an international conference for city managers that happened to be held in Phoenix,íí Echelman wrote in an email. "He started by saying that he initially opposed the project, and that now he loved it and could not imagine the city without it. That meant a lot.íí

The Phoenix project is instructive because of the similarities, in both concept and development, to the pier. Both were funded (at least partially) with tax dollars, and both were going on public land.

Echelmanís work in Seattle, for instance, was privately funded by Bill Gates on a corporate campus. The Greensboro, N.C., project used money bequeathed to the city. Other projects have been temporary (Boston) or smaller (San Francisco).

Like Phoenix, the pier proposal is meant to be iconic. It is less a complement, and more an attraction.

Is it expensive? Yes, but in this case the cost is somewhat offset. More than half of the $2.8 million price tag will be covered by local benefactors. Public financing will account for about $1.3 million.

Will it withstand wind and sun? Phoenix has already replaced the nets, but that material was cheaper and meant to be recyclable. Echelman says the material she wants to use in St. Petersburg will better withstand the sun.

Is it a risk? I suppose, but itís a calculated risk. The public cost is not excessive considering Echelmanís reputation and track record, and itís not like it will forever alter the waterfront. It would be fairly easily removed. On the other hand, it has the potential to be a major public draw.

Admittedly, the finer points of art are lost on me. I sometimes oooh, and occasionally aaah, but Iím an unwitting philistine most of the time. My first impression of the rendering was that it resembled a Grateful Dead T-shirt I once owned.

But, speaking for the culturally bereft, Iím intrigued. Itís original. Itís colorful. Itís got a chance to make St. Peteís waterfront instantly identifiable. It will become the overhead shot most TV cameras seek out for Tampa Bay sporting events, and itís almost guaranteed to show up in Facebook selfies daily.

Iím neither critic nor expert, but I do like to gamble occasionally.

And this feels like a bet worth making.

This column has been revised to reflect the following clarification: The material for Janet Echelmanís proposed artwork in St. Petersburg is different and more resistant to UV light than what she used for her Phoenix sculpture. That point was not clear in an earlier version of this column.