March 18th, 2008
This is about how we should commission artists for public art projects. It is a plea for public involvement in the process and I hope it will provide a confidence booster to those who don’t feel they have the ability to make judgements.
Who should run the project?
Public art projects need a champion. The person who leads should be appointed by, and preferably part of, the funder’s or initiator’s workforce. They should have an affinity with the art world. If an organisation does not already employ such a figure then there are a whole series of courses that can give a suitable person confidence. Art is not a secret society. It is perfectly possible for an interested layman to hone their judgement enough to fulfil this role. Though I do feel that there is an imperative for the project leader to be a consistent and committed part of the team, rather than an outsider.
The project manager
The project manager may also be part of this workforce and should preferably be involved in managing the whole project as well as the art bit. The project manager must understand the physical, planning and legal implications of putting artists’ work into the public domain. However that person need not be an arts specialist. They can often be members of the planning department, the developer’s project manager or a professional like an architect, engineer or landscape architect.
The artistic advisor
Even if the team leader or project manager has a good artistic sensibility I always recommend that the team engage an advisor from the local art world, though it is important that this person has a knowledge and understanding of the wider art world and is not too rooted in local artistic politics. In projects I have led that individual has been an advisor from the Arts Council, a teacher from a local art school or a curator from a local art gallery. That advisor could also be a commissioned curator from the consultancy world, but in my view they should not be left alone to manage the project. Why? Because the project needs ownership from the funder and from the community. It may be possible to convince the advisor that they can fulfil this role as part of their existing job description. A professional curator will require remuneration.
The final and most import part of the commissioning team will be the community. In most projects there is already some sort of community regeneration board or community group who can form the sounding board. I also often encourage the group to set up a small sub-group. This group should consist of people who are trusted by the whole community but who also feel they might have an interest in public art. At some stage the sub-group, supported by the rest of the team, will have to go back to the wider community to justify their decisions.
Before advertising can begin the shortlisting team, consisting of the leader, project manager, the artistic advisor and the community representatives can take advantage by learning a little more about public art. The advisor or the leader or a mixture of both can take the lead here offering to give a slide show or to host a tour of public art projects. The aim should be to explain the breadth of different types of public art rather than to push one particular strand of work. I often invite as many of the wider community group as possible to this as it helps in later stages. The discussion during and after the slide show is often very stimulating. By this stage the uninitiated are beginning to understand and beginning to realise that their views are as valid as anyone else’s.
Though people fear it I recommend an open selection process which involves advertising the commission and short-listing. This may be essential if the project is a large one. If there is a considerable budget I also favour commissioning more than one artist. You can use the opportunity to select a diverse mix of artists, local and national, young and old, established and fresh, etc. This allows the team to more easily display that they have adhered to relevant equal opportunities and diversity agendas. It also gives a diverse selection committee a change to exercise their diverse tastes.
By selecting a shortlist we can select a range of artists and allow different sectors of the group to include their favourites. It does not matter that different people on the panel may have widely differing views. In my experience by treating everyone on the panel as equal and by respecting the judgement of everyone we will get a better shortlist.
By inviting the artists to interview we allow them to speak for their own work. Though allowance has to be made in a varied list between the established artists, who one would expect to present their work in a more polished fashion, and younger or local artists who may not have the same experience or confidence.
I have never found that the group argues at this stage. It always seems to pan out that everyone is relatively satisfied and confident about the selection. I would like to think it is because in the end, whether educated in art or not, we are all able to make a judgement about the integrity, the quality of execution and the meaning of a piece of art work. For example on a recent selection committee I led the community group felt strongly that they wished to select artists who did not actually propose a piece of work. Instead they took the brave decision to select the artists who seemed genuinely to wish to engage with the community before deciding on the work. Selecting the artist and not the work is very sophisticated thing to do in my view.
I have found that the community often gains great confidence by discovering that they can make sound judgements about such things as modern art. In regeneration projects the community will be called upon to decide about a whole series of complex and important issues. By cutting their teeth on decisions surrounding public art they can soon graduate to making informed and sound decisions about the long-term future of the community. An artist knowing that they have been selected by the community will have more confidence and will be able to call on the sport of the community at a later date.
For example I have known communities who protect the work from crime, who feed and house the artists and who will support them in the press. I have never run a public art project which has not received stacks of very good publicity even from the often critical local rag! I have also seen the community argue forcefully with the funder, in this case the Local Authority, for more money for the work, in a way I would find impossible.
We are often made to feel small and uniformed by the art-world advisors – the critics and the curators. However I believe that we all have the ability to distinguish good work and the more we exercise that skill the less we will be bamboozled by so-called experts. Long live the ability of everyone to exercise their God-given skills of judgement!