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Spending on public art debated

Some say $125,000 is too much to pay for a metal mobile for Sunken Gardens.

By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 1, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The huge aluminum mobile will hang over the ticket counter in Sunken Gardens. Light will dance off the huge ribbon-like sheets of curved metal as they sway in the subtle air currents.

The price tag: $125,000.

Visitors can interpret the city's latest and most expensive piece of public art as a sunset, an ocean on a windy day or ripples on a pond, said creator Tim Prentice of Connecticut.

"They can take it in as it is," said Prentice, 72, who will install the untitled work in March or April when the renovated Sunken Gardens building opens at 1825 Fourth St. N.

As the city eliminates jobs and tightens its budget, more money than ever is being spent on individual pieces of public art in St. Petersburg. Commissions for $50,000 and $100,000 metal sculptures have replaced $12,500 murals.

That's because a movement is under way among the city's Public Arts Commission to raise St. Petersburg's profile in the public art world.

"The thing we've talked about is getting more on the map, so people will come to St. Petersburg to see the public art," said Brian Ransom, 48, an Eckerd College art professor and member of the city's Public Arts Commission.

But given tough economic times, some residents wonder whether $125,000 is too much to spend on any given piece.

"It's excessive," said Clifford Holensworth, president of the neighborhood association for Crescent Lake, which sits across from Sunken Gardens, a tourist attraction featuring tropical plants. "I would probably want to see money go to other things -- salary, staff, traffic engineering, pedestrian safety."

The city spent a third of the $342,732 in its public art coffer for the Sunken Gardens piece.

"We bought quality," said acrylic painter Betsy Orbe Lester, 52, also a member of the city's Public Arts Commission.

The 66-pound mobile for the Sunken Gardens lobby is a collection of six, 22-foot-long strips of aluminum that are between eight inches and 1-1/2-feet wide. They will hang from stainless steel guide wires attached to aluminum tubes.

"The work is about movement and change," Prentice said.

The art for Sunken Gardens is part of the city's Art in Public Places program, which requires that 1 percent of the cost of city construction and renovation projects be set aside for art, with no restrictions on where to put the art or how much to spend.

About 62 pieces -- some for $250 -- have been bought since 1993.

"I think it's money well spent," council member Bill Foster said. "Go to the water treatment plant at 62nd Avenue across from Mangrove Bay Golf Course. We've got one of the neatest pieces of public art: It's a stainless steel fish coming out of a water pipe."

Another well-known collection was bought in 2001. The city spent $100,000 on Millennium Gateway, gold leaf sculptures on the walkway between BayWalk and the parking garage.

"It's part of our whole maturing as a cultural community," said Ann Wykell, the city's cultural affairs manager. "I think Millennium Gateway symbolized that turning point."

The Public Arts Commission, a nine-member group appointed by Mayor Rick Baker, began its search for the Sunken Gardens artist in 2001. The city hired a $3,500 consultant, who collected resumes from 15 artists.

Prentice, who has created works for such corporate clients as Exxon/Mobil and Wells Fargo, was picked from three finalists, one of whom is well-known for public art in New York.

The City Council ultimately approved the $125,000 purchase, which is exempt from bid requirements.

"We've been stuck in the $25,000 to $50,000 range and that doesn't buy you much," said Larry LaDelfa, 54, a Public Arts Commission member and St. Petersburg architect. "With $125,000, you've got something that will be significant, and hopefully the budgets will get bigger as time goes along."

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