In my role as an artist and educator, I am often asked questions by students and other artists about the public art process. Non-artists and artists can both find public art to be mystifying, and so I would like to share my experience with the commissioning process. In recent years I have been shortlisted for a number of public art projects, and I have also served as a representative on juries deciding on public art commissions. It is interesting to sit on both sides of this process, as I have had the opportunity to observe each side of the decision making process.
One thing I have learned is that there is no dominant structure for the jury process – some juries are run by municipal employees, such as the process in the City of Hamilton. Here we have a Program Manager of Public Art and Projects who is responsible for overseeing the public art master plan and public art selection processes. The program manager is charged with ensuring community consultation and fairness in the decision making process that usually begins with an open call for qualifications or proposals from artists. The benefit of this system is that it allows for a centralized vision of public art in the city, and direct accountability for the decisions that are made.
Another interesting model that I have experienced in other cities is the jury system that is run by public art consultants. Public art consultants are individuals or companies that work with private developers or communities to develop public art projects and select the artist to receive the commission. In many cities across Canada there are variations on the ‘percent for art’ program in which developers are required or encouraged by zoning and building codes to set aside a percentage of the overall building budget for public art projects. Sometimes these funds are managed by arm’s length municipal organizations, but more often public art consultants are contracted to facilitate the commissioning of public art that fulfills the requirement of municipal bylaws. The consultant is instrumental in developing the scope of the project and guiding the commissioning body in assembling a selection jury; the consultant also often acts as a liaison between the artist and the commissioning developer during the fabrication and installation of the public art.
One interesting difference that I have observed between these two different models is that municipally controlled selection processes often begin with a call to artist. This is usually in the form of a Request for Proposals (RFP) or a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), where the scope of the project is outlined (budget, timeline, themes) and any qualified artist is eligible to submit a proposal for consideration. Public art consultants follow this model as well; however, I have also observed a number of cases where the art consultant, in conversation with the commissioner, develops a short list of potential artists without putting forward a public call. Being professionals in the field, the consultant is aware of artists who are capable of meeting the requirements of a public art process. Once this shortlist is assembled the process often goes to committee for further development.
In my experience, I would not say one process is more successful than the other. However, I do believe it provides an interesting contrast, especially when considering the motivation of funders for public art. Within the model of the municipal run system, it is public funds going towards enhancing our cities through public art, whereas with public art funded by a private developer, it is a commercial entity that is contributing to the vitality of our city scape. It is interesting that the models can operate so differently yet both tend to lead to the same outcome.