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Thinking About Getting Into Public Art?

by Mark Johnstone

Although it is a much older field, artists have turned towards public art over the past fifteen years as many more projects have become available as opportunities, and during this period the field has dramatically changed. The kind of advice that can be utilized by artists in public competitions is generally applicable to private commissions as well, which are usually direct commissions. Those made by businesses most commonly happen with new construction, while those intended for private collections are often unrelated to construction (although landscape design may be involved in how a piece is sited) – in either case, the project is often brokered and managed by an art consultant.

When I first became involved twenty years ago, Los Angeles had not yet passed a city-wide ordinance for either the public or private sectors. So, understandably, the first project that I was involved in was a private commission: five artists were asked to prepare proposals, for a modest fee, and three – Lita Albuquerque, Jud Fine and Eric Orr – were selected for projects that became integrated design features of the Security Pacific Gallery in Costa Mesa,

California, a 10,000 square foot gallery which was designed by architect Frederick Fisher and opened in June 1989.

Albuquerque’s “Spheres of Influence (Sun, Moon, Earth)” consisted of three floor and ceiling pieces, each of which was comprised of two disks (a black polished granite circle inset into the concrete floor, and a polished copper disk suspended from the ceiling above, backlit with blue neon).

Fine wrapped seven support columns throughout the galleries, and “coded” the wraps with two different widths to spell out a message in Morse code – “WHY SEPAC ART?” which is the title of his piece.

Orr created “What is the Speed of Light” (the glass gallery storefront with a sandblasted bottom that was lit from below at night), “Pool of Darkness” (a black lacquered mirror just inside the storefront), “The Other Side of Time” (a slit of light emanating from the rear of the storefront transom), and “Suprematist Floor” (an area in the front seating area with green granite slashes and a wood floor inlaid in the concrete floor).  The projects these artists created represent many of the benefits of having an artist involved at the front end of the design process. Through working with the architectural team, they were able to incorporate many of their design elements into the construction schedule, and even have some of their costs absorbed by the construction budget.

But, perhaps, I may be getting ahead of the larger story, for it is important to note that all these artists had previously received commissions.

Plan to start small. In other words, if you’ve never engaged in the public art process (“process” being the key word here), don’t expect to be awarded a $50,000 commission on your first attempt. If you are principally a painter, don’t apply for sculpture projects. If the selection panel of a project is getting good advice from the agency/city staff, they will tend to seriously consider an artist’s experience in their deliberation.

Learn about the terms being used. For example, you should understand the differences between a RFP (Request for Proposal) or RFQ (Request for Qualifications). Is it an “open call” or “limited call?” (An open call is much broader, for example “All artists living in the United States,” while a “limited call” will be much more narrow, for example “All artists living in Bloom County.” In either case, the requesting document or brochure should identify who is eligible to apply. Read this document (“Call to Artists”) very carefully. It should clearly describe all stages of the selection process, such as who is eligible or what should be included in the application package, step by step.

Become familiar with types of public art. These include, but are not limited to, temporary projects such as a mural on the wall around a construction site, or permanent projects which can range from a purchase of existing art to art that is integrated into the physical architecture of a project. There are also artist initiated projects – but, of course, that means you need to find your own funding – and this can be considered “art in public places,” rather than public art. (Buying existing art and placing it somewhere is also referred to as “plop art.”)

Generally, become familiar with the types of funding sources and the funding agency that is issuing the RFP or RFQ. Some of the different types of public monies that are available, depending on the city and state, are a percent of capitol improvement projects funded by a city (such as building a library), or projects initiated by redevelopment agencies, community development corporations, or urban renewal agencies. Frequently, there are different potential usages for the available money, such as the art needs to be physical or integrated into the consturction, as compared to a more transitory art such as dance. There can be restrictions on funding source expenditures, or agency policies, which may determine the kind of art that is being commissioned.

Do the research. What is the RFP or RFQ seeking? Find out about the history of the program, other commissioned projects, the history of the geographical area and the make-up of the community. Talk to people who are involved in the commissioning agency or business.

Present your ideas in a straight-forward manner. This simple concept can be applied to all areas of your application: cover letter, statement about your work, written proposal, representative images of your artwork and budget. Your cover letter should clearly state how or why your work is appropriate for this project and site. Don’t use art jargon in the statement about your work – keep it simple. The written proposal should distill elements of what you have learned in your research, which have a real bearing on what you plan to do and how you plan to accomplish it. For example, make certain you are addressing the goals and objectives of the RFP or RFQ. How will your work integrate with both the community (users) and general surroundings (physical environment)?

Remember how the word “process” was emphasized a few paragraphs ago? Most artists, even with schooling and the benefits of learning to talk about their work in a critique class, then go on to working alone in their studios. Making art is usually a solitary process, relieved only by talking to potential gallery dealers or the audience at an exhibition opening. Public art is a process that involves a different set of skills. You will need to be able to explain your project to city staff, such as landscape architects, engineers, public art administrators, architects, project engineers and the general public, perhaps at various city meetings. You may have to be part of a team, willing and open to collaboration. It should be viewed as an exciting opportunity, for you will be able to accomplish work of a size and scope that might not otherwise be possible to do alone, and there will be the potential for learning a great deal from the “give and take” that is part of the process – not to mention the networking that can occur from being involved with so many levels of a project.

Examples of your artwork should match the quality of your writing. Another key part of the application is to supply good – and appropriate – images as part of your submission package. They should be well-exposed, focused, clearly labeled – and appropriate. For example, for a RFP that sought site-specific integrated sculptural designs. I’ve seen desperate inexperienced applicants submit poorly exposed images of drawings, and demonstrate no familiarity in their statements with materials or actual fabrication. Believe me, the less you demonstrate that your proposal is worthy of consideration, the sooner it will drop out of contention.

Check and recheck. Have other people review your application, not only to check spelling and grammar, but to judge how clearly you have communicated your ideas about the project. Remember, the selection panel may know nothing about you or your work, and will be judging your application solely by means of what is in front of them. Make certain you have provided everything requested. If necessary, get assistance with organizing your resume – it is your professional field summary (relevant work experience, solo exhibitions, group exhibitions, commissions, awards or grants, fellowships or residencies, publications, collections, representation or references).

If possible, seek out some training. Many agencies or city entities frequently offer workshops in assembling a public art package. These are particularly useful for learning how to assemble budgets, how to obtain bids and/or estimates for sub-contracted items, how to research and provide information about materials and other items that may be unfamiliar, such as taxes, insurance, contingencies, transportation, permits, engineering, lighting and landscaping. In this regard, you can also search the internet for information (it is especially helpful to visit city websites that have maintained a public art program for some period of time), go to your local library and locate books or information that has been written specifically to help artists with all aspects of public art proposals.

Public art is not for every artist. I’ve known fine painters, who labored and created great murals and hated what they viewed as “all the hoops you have to jump through.” I’ve always thought that the apprentice approach in public art is very helpful, because inexperienced artists get to see and experience first-hand the whole process.

Look at public art. Read as much as you can about public art. Check out the Public Art Review, the only publication devoted to public art in this country (www.publicartreview.org). Look at the information provided by the Public Art Network by the Americans for the Arts (www.AmericansfortheArts.org/PAN). Do your homework, organize your ideas and work and think outside the box.

Mark Johnstone lives in Hailey Idaho, where he is an Arts Commissioner, and was instrumental in the city’s adoption of a Percent for Art ordinance in January 2008. He also is a Regional Public Art Advisor for the Idaho Commission on the Arts. Johnstone lived in Los Angeles from 1977-2004, and was the Administrator of the Public Art program for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs from 1995 through 2001. Since 1999, he has served on the Board of Advisors for the Public Art Review. He is the author of Epicenter – San Francisco Bay Art Now (Chronicle Books, 2002) and “What is Public Art” in Urban Surpises: A guide to Public Art in Los Angeles (Balcony Press, 2002).

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2 Responses to “Thinking About Getting Into Public Art?”

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  2. Robert Findley Says:

    I’ve done all kinds of public steel construction, large projects, but want to do steel public art. I have a degree in Art education, another in construction engineering….and three small public art projects 25 thousand. how do I get larger projects?

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