Making the Public Art Selection Process Artist Friendly

Many who work professionally in the public art field are asking if the commissioning process is needlessly discouraging to artists. Is it too burdensome, overly constrictive, and bureaucratic? The question establishes an objective: that selection practices be designed to serve the highest ambitions of the field—to create compelling works of art that stimulate and challenge their audiences. It also implies the need for administrative structures that encourage artists to create their very best work while embracing an expansive creativity. Several factors contribute to this condition: how the work is defined, the identified resources required to complete the project, and the role of professionals in the selection of artists and facilitation of projects. These concerns, expressed by artists seeking thoughtful collaboration and opportunities to define and create new kinds of work, have been brought to the attention of the Public Art Network (PAN) of Americans for the Arts, on which we sit as members of the governing council. In our experience as artist and consultant (Marc Pally) and program-project administrator (Janet Kagan), we have observed and worked at the national and local levels and offer the following as topical considerations for artists, administrators, and others advocating for fruitful public art practices.

Communities desire public art because it has the potential to make natural and built environments in which we can be surprised by our responses, feel that we are in a special place, and surround ourselves with a visual texture otherwise absent in the homogeneity of contemporary (urban) design. There are approximately 400 public art programs across America. Some are housed in municipal government or nonprofit organizations, and others are associated with larger cultural arts entities. Additionally, private corporations commission artworks for their buildings, support artist residencies, and maintain gallery and exhibition venues. This vast array of programs can find common ground in the development of selection processes that respect artists’ resources.

Public art is increasingly defined by the blurring of boundaries among art, technology, architecture, landscape design, and planning. Public art programs have the challenge and privilege of supporting projects that reach across several disciplines and may be ambiguous if not outright opaque in meaning to the general public.

Most public art commissions are funded through percent-for-art ordinances adopted by local and state governments. These policies introduce a rigor into the systems of approvals and accountability that influence how cities are planned, designed, and built; they also frequently constrict artists’ definitions of projects, process, and implementation. All too often such policies come saddled with bidding practices structured for securing design services and not necessarily appropriate for the procurement of art. Too often public art projects are tangled up by the fact that artists are asked to develop their work in the same way as architects, landscape designers, and engineers; or worse, they are asked to function as decorators of infrastructure. Furthermore, artists are too regularly asked to vie for public art commissions through design competitions that deny the essence of the public art process—research, engagement, collaboration, innovation, and originality. While some large-scale projects can benefit from highly competitive design competitions, the exceptions are proving the rule that it is always better to select an artist for a public project through interviews and knowledge of their work and approach.

Artists primarily work within a frame of curatorial and critical analysis. Their training encourages the development of a mutable vocabulary of form-making that emphasizes discovery, change, and experimentation. In contrast, architects, landscape designers, and engineers are trained to identify a creative solution that speaks foremost to problem-solving in response to a given set of explicit conditions. In other words, design professionals commence with a response to a program, whereas artists are more inclined to privilege individual vision over program. Design professionals work with a different set of skills than artists, although their perspectives and creative responses may share similarities. In general, they are tasked with concrete problem-solving, and their discourse may be multivalent but it must include functionality. Here, art and design part company because the discourse of art does not necessarily, and only rarely, includes practicality.

To be sure, there are similarities between the professions. Both artists and design professionals appreciate the opportunity to conceive work that refines a client’s needs, brings ineffable desires into a tangible medium, and satisfies a broader purpose or goal. But freed of the programmatic and technical constraints that characterize architecture and landscape design, artists have a broader palette of possibilities to consider (and infinitely smaller budgets). Respecting and using that which distinguishes art from design is a basic task of public art professionals. The most salient dimension in which differences should be recognized and addressed is artist selection. Selecting an artist for a public art project should be distinguished by a process that values the quality of the potential emotional and intellectual experience that the work will evoke.

The ability of public art professionals to create more responsive selection practices demonstrates a respect for both the artist’s expansive curiosity and his or her limited financial resources. Selections that depend on evaluation of artists’ visual and financial proposals—in the absence of essential and supporting interaction about project content and context—are inherently flawed. When a traditional design procurement process brings its methodology to what is otherwise an extended research and conceptual design phase of work, the artist is asked to ignore the fundamental dimensions that define and produce the work of art. Competitive bidding based on designs that will almost certainly undergo substantial change is inappropriate to the artistic process. The goal of every public art program should be to engage an artist at the earliest stages of project definition when decisions about site, budget, materials, intended use, and need are still being discussed and there is time to consider alternative ideas and opinions.

Conducting a national search for an artist and subsequently asking a shortlist of five or more to develop design proposals for a project, based on a limited exchange of ideas, denies not only the artist’s strength of interpretation, but also the protracted duration of multiple iterations for a work to begin to resonate with project constituencies. For many artists, proposals without exchange and discussion can only be a point of entry and not a final solution. Furthermore, honoraria and fees are often woefully inadequate to cover actual time and expenses required to generate a respectable proposal. Exceptions to this rule will and should occur—there are unusual opportunities that are best opened to the broadest pool of artists. Sometimes a call for proposals brings the unexpected, from artists whose background does not easily suggest their preparedness for a public art commission. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial is a classic example of how a design competition can expand the field of public art.

How then should artists be selected, given the objective that public art is inherently interactive and informed by its site? Artist selection committees must be primarily composed of arts professionals, many of whom should also know the field of public art. Like all other disciplines, art has a highly developed vocabulary and history. Selection processes should respect the integrity of art by insuring that selection discourse is dominated by knowledgeable arts professionals. An ideal structure would define the project only so far as to establish loose parameters, leaving the identification of the work itself to the artist. Perhaps it is time to be less specific in public art calls and give artists a larger frame in which to conceive their projects.

There is an appropriate and essential role for the voice of others in the selection of artists, but not at the first stage of evaluation of past work. As a first step, the selection process should be considered within the vocabulary of art and limited to a review of qualifications. After a qualified panel has reviewed existing work, résumés, and letters of interest, a small number of finalists (three to five is a good range) should be interviewed. Interviews allow selection committees to engage individuals directly about their work, philosophy, and approach, providing insight into the appropriateness of the artist to the project. As an alternative to an open call, the selection process might go forward with the project manager expressing the ambition of the undertaking to artists, contemporary art curators, public art administrators, art historians, architects, landscape architects, and other professionals with knowledge of the visual arts to ask for names of artists they believe would be excited by the opportunity. Artists can then be contacted by the project manager to ascertain their interest in the commission and submit relevant information for consideration and a possible interview.

Nothing is simple about the process of making public art. Perhaps the only shared expectation among the hundreds of divergent public art programs across America is the ambition to create compelling works that offer opportunities to rethink, reconnect, and re-interpret ourselves and each other in public space. The public art field consists of artists with decades of experience in the public sphere and others who have limited or no experience. Public art must continually develop and expand the pool of artists who receive commissions. New and different visions can revitalize and revisit assumptions and provide fresh responses to our ever-changing global and local communities. It is the task of administrators to develop inviting structures that will be supportive of artists, be they public art novices or veterans. Sensitive and artistically ambitious selection processes should be advanced as a critical means to permit artists to do what whey do best and create compelling works of art for the public realm.