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public art: 'fighting back"

updated thu 17 apr 03


Stephani Stephenson on wed 16 apr 03

I am responding to some of the thoughts in mel's post without actually
having the post in front of me ...
Egad!!!!! Always dangerous! but mel, your post started a train of
thought ...

I look through a very tiny peephole into the world of public art, but I
can share a few of my perceptions !
I have completed a few quasi public projects, and have interviewed for
some with 'citizen' and selection committees and have seen other's
proposals as well.

I think that 'traditionalist' art proposals (for lack of better words at
the moment) would actually be welcomed by many public art clients. By
clients I mean cities, towns, parks, other agencies and entities using
public funding.....

but I note the following:

1. the public funding pie isn't that big and / or the process can be
long and arduous. example: A county project I am up for had an
established budget of $60,000. 4 days before the interview process, the
budget was cut to $20,000, including installation, and the interviews
were moved back 5 months. these projects can turn into years long
projects and can be quagmires of red tape and endless meetings.
So if you want to reclaim some territory, are you ready for this?

2. Presentation is key. Years ago Swedish ceramist Ulla Viotti, who has
done many large scale public projects, told me that the planning, design
and construction of the moquette, and the presentation of the proposal
were almost more important than the final product. I.E. she put a great
deal of time and effort into that part of the process. And that was back
in the pencil and paper, Pantone, paper mache , paste and foam board
days .

Nowadays there is a subculture of artists I call " proposal artists". I
would divide them into 2 general categories.

One is the artist who is primarily a computer artist, or a 'multimedia'
artist. This person can create a realistic fantasy land with their
proposal. They can plant a proposed 'sculpture' in the midst of
gorgeous landscaping, strolling families and a balmy sunset, creating a
complete picture and a good feeling about the piece. This artist may be
'trendy' or 'avant garde' but isn't necessarily either of those.

Recently I saw a proposal for bus stops The idea was to make bus stops
which looked like vegetables. The artist created an entire city street
scene, with sidewalk, etc., and simply computer pasted photo images
of various vegetables in the bus stop areas.... as in , a 10 foot tall
head of lettuce..... It made for a campy presentation, but nowhere did
you get any idea what material the vegetable bus stops would actually
be made of, and if the artist could carry it off. Almost ALL of the
presentations looked like this, and the paper and pencil ones looked
quite pale and boring in comparison, which says nothing about the actual
ability of the artist with regard to the FINAL work... But there it is.

This new breed of presentation is graphics rich, image laden and quite
attractive to an audience which is increasingly attuned to this type of
presentation.I have noticed that some colleges are starting 'public art'
programs. Requirements for the instructors are heavy, heavy on computer
graphics and multimedia skills, so I would expect a new 'pedigreed'
breed of proposal artists to continue to emerge.
So if you want to claim some territory, how do you compete with this new
'graphic presentation' standard?

Second category consists of very competent , tested artists who make a
career of public art. Example, whoever the 'hammering man' artist is...
I have seen a 'hammering man' in front of the Seattle Art museum, I have
seen one in front of the San Diego Museum of contemporary
art....obviously this artist figured out a public art project which
would fly. He must have a compelling presentation, already completed .
He can submit it, or variations of it to numerous sites. Another is an
artist who works in terrazzo and is capable of undertaking quite large
projects. She has the technical chops down, she is confident, she
radiates this confidence, and has highly professional PR material as
Once you have figured out the game and have prepared the necessary
paperwork, you are in a better position to get other projects. also you
have a track record and are seen as less of a risk to selection
committees. This group of artists have presentation materials that are
professional, flawless and designed to impress and put the committee at
ease. And truly, they are your main competition.

I was talking to Frank Georgini about presentation at NCECA, and he
showed me one of his proposals for a very large mural. It was quite
detailed, but stil hand done.The written portion was very well written
and the drawing was both exact and visually wonderful. Hand colored, yet
precise measurements, etc. He said he always , ALWAYS takes in actual
pieces of tile , or work. I was so glad to hear him say this. Usually
slides are relied on, as well as graphics. This always frustrated me, as
it eliminates the tactile dimension. So often these projects are about 3
dimensional projects, and yet all presentation material is 2 D. So I had
determined, prior to talking to Frank, that I would arrange to bring
actual samples to interviews, even though the interview guidelines do
not ever specify it. I think this introduction of a 'brick and mortar'
approach, might actually look refreshing , in the midst of all the
'sound bite' graphics.

I have to admit, I give myself a grade of 'half ass' in this category...
OK not half ass, I do the best I can, but it definitely looks like I ,
me, yo, put it together myself, unlike some of the more polished
presentations..usually there is notoriously short lead time to prepare
for an interview or presentation, so you need to have something, 'in the
can'.( So maybe I am not half assed, but I have it only half canned...)

3. Selection
committees are made up of members who each have their own agendas,
preferences, and biases.
On the whole, civic art selection committees are somewhat petrified
about art. They don't want lawsuits or liability issues, they don't want
a public backlash, they don't want a 'difficult artist'. Certain high
profile court cases in past decades upheld artist's rights, deeming
that public art could not be moved, changed or removed without the
artist 's consent. Public clients are nervous , afraid that the artist
will stick them with something awful and that they will have to engage
in litigation to get it removed if it is unpopular...There may be
dissension on the committee... also as with most committees, there may
be one or two strongly influential members and others who simply act as
rubber is likely that no one on the committee will be
deeply familiar with your work or your medium, or your craft.

But here again I would think that many of them would embrace a sound
approach. This would include very traditional artists as well as artists
who do not classify themselves in any way, but have good work to

I am very far removed from knowing what goes on in the NEA these days.
I do know that NEA funds are often broken down into state funds, and
State arts agencies have different make- ups depending on their
location. Yes there are always those who are the darlings of the public
fund crowd. I think the vast majority of paying projects are not with
the NEA but are in the public/private sector. City/county committees
will be made up of art agency types, but will also include, neighborhood
citizen members, public works officials, parks dep't.. officials, etc.
most of them are not artists and are certainly not avant garde
aficionados. Hospitals and corporations are another source of projects,
and usually have a formal though much more streamlined selection

You can see committees as open minded or close minded, but remember
their number one goal, is that once you are selected, they want to know
you will cause them no problems, get the work done at budget and on
time, and again , did I say , they really want to know you will cause
THEM no headaches.????........of course , they aren't too concerned with
YOUR headaches , so know that architect plans can change, funding can
change, timeline can change, parameters can change.......

so this is my take, a teeny tiny part of what you need to know if you
decide to enter the fray!

Stephani Stephenson