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The One that Got Away

Salt Lake City's gamble to install an iconic art work hits a snag.



When the retail, apartment and business monolith that is City Creek Center was under construction in downtown Salt Lake City, Regent Street, a small lane between Main and State, was little more than a row of forgotten offices and entryways to parking garages. Once home to the thundering presses of the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune, after the newspapers relocated, the gothic corridor between 100 South and 200 South seemed little more than a derelict alleyway, connecting Gallivan Plaza with City Creek mall.

That 60-foot-wide corridor between two key downtown locations, however, had been on the minds of then-Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and the board of the city's Redevelopment Agency (RDA) ever since the early stages of developing the Eccles Theater, a 2,500-seat venue on Main that abuts Regent Street. Becker says he and the RDA board hoped that on the back of the funding of the Eccles Theater, they might also redevelop Regent Street into "a festival street," akin to a cultural pedestrian space like Maiden Lane in San Francisco.

In March 2015, the RDA board approved a $12.8-million project budget for revamping Regent Street, which included $2 million for public art and $700,000 for lighting and projection technology infrastructure. The RDA approached the Salt Lake City Arts Council to find an artist whose work would bring distinction to a street already distinguished by its stubbornly individualistic past. Once known as Commercial Street, it was the hub of Salt Lake City's red-light district from the 1870s to 1908, after which it was home for immigrant railroad workers and their families.


When the Salt Lake City Arts Council launched a call for entries in May 2015 for an artist to produce a work of public art to crown Regent Street's redevelopment, they dangled a remarkable carrot in front of local, national and international artists: namely, the $2.7 million budget.

But despite so much money earmarked for drumming up interest in a side street, the city and the out-of-state artist with an international client list chosen to execute the project fell dramatically out of step, sending the street's minders back to the drawing board. Whether it becomes a boon for local artists or a sweet gig for a big-time national artist, the future of Regent Street's $2.7 million iconic art contract is once more up for grabs.

Karen Krieger is executive director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council (SLCAC). Krieger simply defines public art as that which meets the needs of the site where it is placed. "It's the best expression for the site that the funds will provide. That's what the artist is tasked with, along with using the right material so it lasts a long time without a great deal of funding needed to maintain it."

Public art is typically tax-dollar funded art that is easily accessible to the public, often placed on a street corner, in a park or a plaza. The $2.7 million budget was Salt Lake City's largest ever, single art commission. By comparison, since it began operating, the arts council has spent approximately $4.5 million on public art pieces, outside the $3.4 million in sculptures housed at the city and county building, says SLCAC's head of public art Roni Thomas.

With a quarter-billion dollars going into Block 70—as the RDA categorizes the block bounded by Main and State, 100 and 200 South—Regent Street was in line for a major facelift. According to the Request for Qualifications (RFQ) that the arts council put out for the commission, "The redevelopment of Regent Street offers an opportunity to merge history with the contemporary to create a welcoming, dynamic urban environment unlike any other found in Salt Lake City." A local architecture firm, GSBS Architects, developed a Regent Street design to turn it into "a new public experiential gathering place that will engage its visitors as they shop, dine, socialize and stroll." Part of that design includes art stamped into the sidewalk and walls of "press sheet" imagery celebrating the street's newspaper past.

While Salt Lake City public art projects are funded through a variety of mechanisms—including a 1985 ordinance that 1 percent of the construction cost of new municipal building projects go to art—the Regent Street project was to be funded through a RDA bond.

A 14-member selection panel of big-wigs drawn from the municipal, business and arts administration downtown community helped the Salt Lake City Design board—five volunteers appointed by the mayor, of whom no more than two can be artists—whittle down the 182 entrants to five finalists, and then to a winner, in early September 2015: internationally renowned sculpture artist, Boston-based Janet Echelman.

Echelman's "squid-like, jelly-fish organic forms," as one local artist calls them, have been commissioned by governments, cities, high-profile museums including the Smithsonian and top-draw entities, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Becker first saw her work in Phoenix. "It was really dynamic art," he recalls, in a downtown that "desperately needs things to attract people there."

She says her life has been dedicated to "serving the public space, creating works of public art that are free to everyone and that enhance life." What excited her about Regent Street, indeed what would have made it unique among her portfolio, was the opportunity to effectively shape an entire street. "My goal was to draw people into Regent Street and create a gem in this hidden courtyard that you can only experience if you walk inside," she says.

According to an audio recording of the presentations by the five finalists and panel discussions that City Weekly accessed through a record request, panelists were ecstatic with Echelman's "soft, billowing netted form," as a city press release described her winning proposal, and the vision she authoritatively painted of bringing world-class artwork to downtown Salt Lake City. "She was absolutely a winner," one panelist concluded in the final deliberations, while another crowed, "I think Janet will fulfill whatever need we have."

Yet, several weeks after Mayor Ralph Becker was defeated by current Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, Becker's then-chief of staff, David Everitt, wrote a letter dated Nov. 25, 2015, to Echelman, terminating negotiations, essentially blaming her for straying beyond the terms of the RFQ in relation to both budget and timeline. The artist robustly denied the claims in detailed responses she sent to Mayor Biskupski in late March 2016.

While the RDA wanted the installation completed by the summer 2016—prior to the opening of the Eccles Theater—in the rush to meet the deadline, the city and their chosen artist found themselves pushed farther and farther apart by miscommunication, competing artistic and municipal needs, financial and construction realities.


For some critics among both the artistic and business community of the Regent Street commission, what it exposed was the problematic process which anointed Echelman in the first place. Local tourism official, Visit Salt Lake's CEO Scott Beck, says it's a problem of the arts council being "rooted in the status quo." He notes the council's process is not one "that really allows you to create something extremely unique and different than what's been done."

Nevertheless, Beck believes that public art can still have a significant impact on the city. He senses "a real opportunity for public art, not as furniture, but art that creates experience that really breaks down these perceptions of what people think Salt Lake is."

At the heart of frustration among these local players lies the concern that the selection process did not reflect the creative needs of artists seeking the work nor did it truly offer opportunities for local artists to contribute. Indeed out of 182 artist entries, only 10 were from Utah, a small response that no one can easily explain.

Nationally acclaimed artist Ned Kahn was one of the five finalists. In an email, he says the organizers of the competition "did a fine job." His criticism relates to the process in general. Competitions, he writes, force artists "to develop their ideas in a vacuum without the back-and-forth dialog with a design team and the clients that can result in a true collaboration and letting an idea evolve and get better." He describes a competition as akin to "a stab in the dark. Sometimes, you get lucky and hit the nail on the head but, more often, you miss."

Local artist, designer and entrepreneur Jeffrey Berke was the only Utahn who made it to the final five. "I hope a future process will be inclusive of a wide range of art forms and a broad cross-section of community voices," he says.

Some among the local artistic and business community argue Echelman was the right choice for putting Salt Lake City on the public-art map. Downtown Alliance's executive director Jason Mathis, one of the 14 selection-panel members, expresses disappointment about the breakdown of talks with Echelman, whose work he found exciting. "Hopefully, having more time allows for a more thoughtful selection process so we end up with an even more dynamic art project for Regent Street," he writes in an email.

Salt Lake City Arts Council executive director Krieger says, in retrospect, it was too early to appoint an artist, because Regent Street's development is highly complex, with many moving pieces in terms of publicly owned and private properties.

Echelman, however, argues that she was brought in too late, rather than too early. "In the midst of urban renovation, you want to involve the art early; otherwise, it becomes icing on a cake," she says. "Instead of something integrated and unique and worthy, it becomes something stuck on like a postage stamp." While smaller art commissions are easier to implement, she says, "my work is an immersive art experience that involves full integration with the construction site."

Patricia Walsh is public-arts-program manager for national nonprofit America for the Arts. She says that best practices in public arts focus on bringing an artist into a project in its earliest stages. "This provides an opportunity for both the artist and the rest of the project team to work together to deliver creative solutions." Krieger and her public-art director Thomas say that the selection process was successful, in part because it stopped when it did, rather than plunging into further disarray. They plan to put out another call for entries for Regent Street in Spring 2017, although the RDA's interim executive director Justin Belliveau feels it should be sooner.

Berke advocates for the funds to be broken up. "We could do 30 projects for $100,000 each. This alone would transform the community. Or we could do 60 projects for $50,000 each, and unveil a major new downtown arts experience every month for five years. The community should have this discussion," he says.

The arts council and the RDA agree, at least in term of a public discussion. Prior to the call for entries, they plan to seek public comment this summer on what public art should grace revamped Regent Street.

Echelman, meanwhile, feels the result of the original selection process should be honored. In late March 2016, she wrote to Mayor Biskupski urging her to embrace her project.

For local artists, excitement over the top-dollar prospect of the Regent Street commission must be tempered, some artists say, with a recognition of limitations. Local sculptor and artist Cordell Taylor says "it comes down to: Do we have the talent here in Utah that could perform on a $3 million contract? That's the reality right there," he says. "Would their impact be as significant to the city and the arts as Echelman would be?"

Click Here to read more, Flights of Fancy: In search of an aesthetic for Salt Lake City's public arts inventory

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints played a key role in Regent Street's development, intentionally lining up the City Creek entrance on 100 South with Regent Street. The church also owns the 24-story office tower going up adjacent to the theater, the construction of which was announced in September 2013 by the former developers, Hamilton Partners. The LDS Church bought out Hamilton's ownership of the project in February 2014.

Through the new office tower and a boutique hotel development project on the corner of Regent and 200 South, "All of a sudden, we had a new (tax) revenue stream that we were not relying on for the theater, for redeveloping the block," former Mayor Becker recalls. By leveraging both existing and expected revenues from private developments into a bond, the RDA came up with the money to redevelop the street and finance public art.

"I thought we had a very rare opportunity with regard to Regent Street to devote enough money to hire someone to do a great piece of art—indeed, get something that really represented iconic-level art for Salt Lake City," Becker says. "Art can really help generate interest, visitation and levels of excitement around the city."


When the RDA asked the Salt Lake City Arts Council to organize an up-to-$2.7-million commission for Regent Street in early 2015, the development was in a state of flux. "Regent Street was a big muddy mess," Krieger says. "The theater was in the very early stages of construction, the facade wasn't complete and Regent Street itself was torn up. The spaces weren't really defined."

In May 2015, the Salt Lake City Arts Council issued a call for entries through the CAFE online system—one it hadn't used before but a system the state had used for some time. It allows artists to submit images and resumes, but some complain it limits their ability to describe projects in the artistic ways they wish to approach them.

With only 10 out of 182 submissions coming from Utah artists, both the council's public-art director Thomas and the mayor's special adviser Katherine Potter were surprised at the lack of local interest.

Local public artist Willi Littig wasn't. He says CAFE "hurts Utah artists," who collectively will often not qualify. "Oftentimes, they ask for work done with a budget between $150,000 and $5 million in the last five years—we don't have those opportunities. We're all hungry. It's hard for us."

The sheer size of the commission daunted some artists. "What talent locally would be able to fulfill those specifications of a $3 million project?" local sculptor and artist Frank McEntire muses. "I can only think of one or two artists who have the prowess to pull that off." Littig says the commission's price tag overwhelmed him. "Artists here have no problem with $25,000 or $50,000 commission—they're just sugar plums. You love to have that. Make that $250,000, and we're uncomfortable. It sounds great, but we get scared by it."

One Utah artist who submitted was the Utah Arts Alliance's founder and executive director Derek Dyer, whose most well-known work locally is a giant disco ball featured in the city's New Year's Eve celebrations. "I knew it would be super-competitive," he says, because he had been on the planning board for "the look and feel" of Regent Street. "I knew they wanted a national or international artist." While there had been some discussions about how to approach the sizable funding, "I think that they eventually went with a lump sum to draw someone with name recognition."

Dyer pitched an interactive projection art proposal with programmable LED lights that would run up and down buildings. "It was heavy on the tech, lots of interactive components. It would have been awesome," he adds. "That $2 million—me and a lot of artists could have created a piece just as spectacular and inspiring, and it would have received as much attention as the famous artist."

On Sept. 1, 2015, close to 20 people gathered in the Salt Lake City Arts Council boardroom for presentations by the five finalists.

Up first was Turkish born, California-based Refik Anadol, who captivated some with his passionate description of three static robots along Regent Street interacting with pedestrians, that interaction reflected in color and light displays on a facade attached to the Walker Center garage.

The second finalist—New York and Colorado-based Jen Lewin—couldn't make the presentation, much to the voiced irritation of panel members. Her team struggled with technical issues and presented a proposal involving an interactive chandelier and three smaller suspended sculptures.

Next up was Northern Californian artist Ned Kahn, famous for work that brings visibility to forces of nature, particularly the wind. His presentation of a kinetic facade was rejected because of construction concerns involving the garage wall it was to be hung from. (A recording "glitch," says the council's Thomas, meant that Kahn's hour is missing from the audio recording).


After the panel returned from lunch, Echelman kicked off the afternoon session. She talked about how through charcoal sketching, and then working with watercolors, she developed an idea involving "walking through a sense of dappled beauty surrounding me," exploring the idea of salt crystals perhaps leading to an "iconic crystal" in the new plaza.

She proposed first a continuous "journey" through Regent Street, a crystalline path as her second idea, or a combination of the two, "a salt crystal necklace," as her third.

Finally Berke, a 20-year veteran of the Salt Lake City arts and event scene and Montreal-based digital-art-projection specialists Moment Factory pitched their idea "for a world-leading art installation," Berke said. They proposed mounting a digital-art screen on the Walker Center garage wall, where in the evening, content could be displayed (even though the RFQ had requested visibility day and night). Berke had gathered letters of interest and support from key local players, including the University of Utah's dean of the College of Fine Arts, the dean of Salt Lake Community College's school of arts, SpyHop and Sundance—all of whom expressed a keen desire to contribute content to the digital-art display.

RDA's interim executive director Belliveau says that the RDA and city leaders had discussed similar ideas to the Berke/Moment proposal sometime before the call for entries. Having local nonprofits provide content for video projection "falls very much in line with the long-term vision," Belliveau says.

Even though further discussions were planned the following morning after the five presentations, it was clear a consensus had emerged by late afternoon. Although panelists admired elements of all the finalists, there were concerns over issues including capabilities, maintenance cost and design that left Echelman the clear frontrunner.

Connecticut-based architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli designed the Eccles Theater. The firm's principal, Mitch Hirsch, a selection-committee panelist, was impressed by Echelman's ideas. He recalls the panel was, "very excited by the possibility of having her piece over the plaza area and joining it to the Regent Street structures in a way only she can do."

Echelman's proposal included only one budget for just under $2 million, which included the optional $700,000 projection piece of the request. Unbeknownst to Echelman, her project manager, whose father had tragically drowned just before the presentation, had not included budgets for the more intricate second and third proposals. Meanwhile, the selection panel thought that her budget for each of her three proposals was under $2 million, which also added to her cachet in their eyes.

"I'd almost be inclined to see what she could do if the entire $2.7 million were allocated to her for this type of opportunity," said one panel member after her presentation, although he didn't know if that were possible. "If that concept involved a request increase of budget, I think we would support that."

Becker says his only concern about the choice of Echelman was that her work for Regent Street would be "a cookie-cutter version of other places." The people involved in the selection process, he continues, were satisfied it would not, and he signed off on the Boston artist.

A week after the presentation, Echelman was notified she had won. Her design "was very unique," Krieger says. "It was designed specifically for the space, it flowed through that whole area. It used specific colors that related to Utah's landscape. It's what she does. All of her work looks very different, it's similar (to her other pieces), but it's also very different."

Sculptor Cordell Taylor was thrilled at Echelman's victory. "I actually think it's the best thing the city's done to enhance their public art," he says. "Them selecting her is a huge benefit to the city. People who love her work travel to see it. It also shows that we're not so single-minded as the rumors have been for the last 150 years."

Salt Lake City artist Amy Caron says choosing Echelman is about playing it safe. Awarding the commission "to someone who's already making all the money, already got all the gigs, I think it's a safe bet, instead of a risky bet." And where, some ask, is the uniqueness, in hiring an artist who has similar-size pieces in nearby cities, such as Phoenix? "It doesn't make me feel that there's a unique sense of place," Caron says. "It's almost like one of the rules would have to be it can't look like anything else within proximity."

Ironically, Echelman's piece in Phoenix almost didn't happen after city government balked at the $2.5 million price tag and withdrew the funding following her selection. Public outcry ultimately saw the piece called "Her Secret Is Patience" become a central focus of the city's downtown renovation in 2009.

According to emails between Thomas and Studio Echelman, the public-art director initially pursued the artist to try to nail down a contract, even as city leaders grappled with the news that Echelman's second and third ideas would cost the entire proposed budget, as opposed to the $2 million for her simplest installation.

When the artist says she learned from the RDA that the bond money expired in September 2017, she pushed for her project to debut then, rather than the August 2016 date the RDA wanted for completion and installation of her sculpture, which would have it ready for the theater's first visiting Broadway production in November. The city pushed back. "August 30 is the schedule we must agree on for this project and is the date that will be reflected in the contract," Thomas emailed Echelman. She hoped Echelman understood, she added, "the commitment the public-art program made to the RDA to meet their deadline."


An additional complication was that some of the assumptions early on about the street's redevelopment, such as the four walls relating to the two garages that bracket it, would be available for art installation needs proved wrong. Which walls will be available remain the focus of "ongoing conversations with the private property owners," says special adviser to the mayor Potter. Then there were the needs of the theater, loading and unloading trucks at the Regent Street entrance and the impact of pedestrian movement on the art installation. "There was what Janet (Echelman) knew, and what we knew, and a space of gray in between," Krieger says.

In a Nov. 17, 2015, email, Thomas wrote to Echelman that Jackie Biskupski had defeated Becker. As Becker's mayoral term came to an end, the prospects for the art project also appeared bleak. "I believe there are several items, including this project, that are still under discussion," Thomas emailed.

Shortly after the election, Becker met with Krieger, Belliveau and his then-chief of staff, David Everitt to discuss the still-to-be signed contract. "We were struggling to pull all of these pieces together," Krieger recalls. The conversation became, she says, "Should we wait until we have the final site to look at, should we wait until we have the experience of the theater and the hotel? Maybe we need to step back from this to make the best possible decision. It wasn't coming together; maybe that should tell us something about where we were at."

Belliveau and Potter insist the shifting fortunes of politics did not impact the negotiations. That said, while they wanted the new administration to be involved in the decision-making process, they didn't want Biskupski to feel pushed into it, particularly if the city were to proceed with a new call for entries.

Becker doesn't recall that meeting, but he says some of the issues Krieger referenced were brought to him as part of a larger question as to whether he would sign off on restarting the selection process. "It seemed pretty clear to me based on what people were telling me that we needed to spend more time on it," he says.

In a letter to Echelman dated Nov. 25, 2015, Everitt wrote that the city was ceasing negotiations. He noted that during negotiations of the contract, "the scope of the original Request for Qualifications (RFQ) has changed significantly, and the city cannot execute a contract with a scope of work that materially deviates from the original RFQ."

Potter says that the city's concern was "that a decision of this magnitude, involving high level of public funds, was made with transparency and fairness to process. We didn't want to do something that could be contested because it had deviated from the RFQ or do something that was not in line with what the RDA and city council had agreed upon with the budget," she says.

The remainder of Everitt's letter pinned responsibility for failure to complete contract negotiations on the artist. While Echelman's original proposal had cleaved to the requested completion deadline of August 2016, "the City understands now that to obtain the expected quality and size of work presented to the Art Design Board, the deadline would need to extend to 2017 or even 2018."

Echelman wanted more money, Everitt wrote, with her bid climbing from $2 million to $2.7 million "for a substantially similar installation." No mention was made of the snafu over different budgets, or the three ideas Echelman had initially presented. Part of the problem from the city's perspective was, "There were questions of who was responsible for the installation that came to light, and we felt she was pushing more of that burden onto the city," Belliveau says.

In a document titled "Corrections & Clarifications" Echelman sent to Mayor Biskupski in late March 2016, she addressed Everitt's criticism. With regard to pushing the completion date beyond June 2016, she wrote that she recommended the city "adjust its delivery date to maximize value to the city for this fixed-price contract by utilizing all the time available, rather than wasting funds on overtime and rush fees to fabricators."

In terms of her budget increase, she wrote that the original RFQ potential total budget was up to $2.7 million, $700,000 of which was for interactive lighting. Her final budget was still $2.7 million, so was within budget parameters.

"Janet didn't exceed the budget that was offered," Krieger says. "She was within that range. She was just utilizing the entire budget, because there was more work, more research, more engineering, which consequently affects the budget."

As to seeking that the city shoulder the cost of installation, while Echelman had initially sought to exclude that cost from her budget, in a Nov. 4 email, she wrote she would accept the money coming out of her art budget.

Echelman and the city continued to negotiate, but on Dec. 11, 2015, Potter emailed Echelman that the city was walking away from negotiations, adding they would pay $5,500 for the time she and her team had already put in.

"We reached a conclusion that enough changes were going to be necessary that affected the schedule, the budget and the scope of the project," Belliveau says, that the city had no other choice.

In late March 2016, Echelman took her case to Mayor Biskupski, informing her in a letter that the original goals of the Regent Street art commission were still achievable before the bond money expires in September 2017. "I am the city's duly selected artist," she wrote and proposed a contract be put in place before the end of April, so she would have "16 months for engineering, design, permitting and fabrication." She concluded, "I believe the only way to deliver a successful work before the funds expire is to follow through the original Selection Committee's results without delay."

City Weekly sought clarification from the city as to when the bond money would expire. Potter consulted with the RDA's bond attorney and learned that it would be in May 2018. "The RDA must have spent a majority of the bond funding on project improvements, which includes public art, within three years from issuance of the bond," she wrote in an email.

Mayor Biskupski's administration, however, rejects Echelman's request that the original selection be upheld. Community and Economic Development Director Mike Reberg, referencing Everitt's letter, wrote in an email that "the arts council and RDA determined that the project didn't conform to the original proposal." He continued that with two years to spend the $2.7 million on public art for Regent Street, "there is time to convene an appropriate group and launch a new process."

While the arts council and the RDA have yet to agree on a timeline for a new call for entries, Belliveau notes the RDA, the arts council and the city now have time to explore what the street, the new plaza and walkway provide in terms of displaying art. "It's so great that this opportunity is not just limited to that one commission," he says. He hopes to see public-art investment, whether public or private, continue on Regent Street under the RDA's watch for years to come.

Krieger says the next step is public outreach on the future of Regent Street public art this summer into fall. Echelman says having reached out to Biskupski to "offer to get this back on track," she has a backlog of clients awaiting her work and will not contest the city's decision to go back to the drawing board. Austin, Texas, which selected her for a $2 million sculpture, was in line "for fabrication after [Salt Lake City], so now Austin will be able to receive their sculpture sooner," she says.

Whoever gets to put his, her or their signature on Regent Street's public art, Echelman urges the city to remember that great art, particularly the kind of iconic art the city originally sought, takes time. "You want world class, it doesn't happen in a minute," she says. CW

To view the city's spending on public art from 2013-2016, click here