By Elizabeth Keithline
As both an artist and a public arts administrator, I have a unique perspective on the snags and successes of securing public art commissions. A hundred artists may apply for a given opportunity—but only one can succeed. Who wins—and why? The answer, of course, varies from project to project. But after reviewing hundreds of applications, it’s clear that a basic understanding of the commissioning process is one of the key hurdles many artists face.
For starters, it’s important to bear in mind that the different entities that commission public art—corporations, individuals, municipal and state governments, museums, nonprofit agencies, foundations, colleges and universities—each have their own process of selection.
Some processes are by invitation only. When corporations commission artwork, they often contact an artist or an artist’s gallery directly. They aren’t required to include the public in their decision making, but they sometimes choose to in the interest of community relations.
Private colleges and universities tend to straddle a commission process that is public to their community, but private to the larger world. Their public art collections can include percent-for-art projects, committee selections, temporary commissions, faculty- or student-led projects, gifts from alumni classes or individuals, and gifts from benefactors. The works that they purchase must mainly satisfy their stakeholders: alumni, donors, board members, administrators, and students, not necessarily the general public.
State percent-for-art programs require a more defined public process. These programs, which earmark a percentage of public bond money for artworks, are supervised by a public “commissioning agency.” Public art laws define the commissioning agency’s mission, dictate how funds will be administered, establish the role and number of panelists on the commission, set budgets, and define artists’ rights. Typically, work commissioned within these programs must be housed in the building from which the budget is derived.
Public artwork is often mandated to be selected by committee, a fact that some think contributes to mediocrity. Most state arts administrators who oversee selection committees are expected to be neutral in discussions, so the only real power they have is in who they invite to serve on their panels. Enlisting the aid of adventuresome artists or curators can give confidence to those on the panel with less art-world experience. Sometimes administrators establish an image library, which allows them to create, for panel consideration, a short list of artists they like and feel they can work with. More administrators are also trying to establish temporary programs that, if not popular, will soon be replaced with the next round of work.
At the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA), the process typically involves three meetings. At the first one, panelists meet on-site to discuss the wording of the request for qualifications (RFQ). They consider what kind of work they want for the commission, the audience profile, and sites within the building and grounds.
The RFQ is written and distributed nationally. After the deadline has passed, panelists read and rank the applications online and then meet for a second time to winnow down the number of applicants. The process is quite competitive. Depending on budget, RISCA receives anywhere from 85 to 300 applications for a project.
At the third meeting, finalists present proposals in person and one is selected for the commission. The selected artist is notified and a contract is written and signed.
One of the hardest things to do with public art projects is to measure success. Public art, particularly publicly funded public art, is sometimes controversial. While some argue that controversy is an indication that government shouldn’t be involved in the commission of art, others feel that controversy is what gives public art its value. And public art is for everyone. There are many people who may not set foot across the threshold of a gallery or museum who should still have art in their lives.
Understanding the commissioning process you are submitting to is a critical prerequisite to winning a contract. Artists should also bear in mind the following tips:
- If at all possible, have your work professionally photographed and maintain an up-to-date website.
- If you are an artist who would like to work in the public realm, try to serve on a selection panel and attend public presentations as often as you can.
- When submitting an application, show that you have read the RFQ by submitting images and text that pertain.
- Don’t request architectural plans just yet. That information will come later if you’re chosen as a finalist. Panelists are mainly looking at your images at this stage of the process.
- When presenting to a panel, be prepared to answer questions about durability, schedule, and subcontractors. Stay flexible.
- Pay attention to national resources on public art: the Public Art Network listserv, forecastpublicart.org, Sculpture.org, and other websites across the country that serve as sources of information for public artists.
- When you come into contact with a percent-for-art manager, be kind. As artist Mark Johnstone says, “Public art requires deep social intelligence.” If that’s true for artists, it’s doubly true for public arts administrators. Sometimes running a percent-for-art program feels like the most radical position in state government.
Elizabeth Keithline is public art director for the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, a principal at Wheel Arts Administration, and a working artist, writer, and curator. Article reprinted from Forecast Public Art: http://forecastpublicart.org