Working with artists can be complicated. Depending on your goals and what kind of results you’re after, there are many options and many considerations. This is true for artists seeking commissions or pursuing independent projects as well. Commissioning a new work of art or getting a commission is about relationships, and like any relationship it involves respect, communication, and flexibility. It also requires business skills, negotiations, and mindfulness.
The primary systems for artists getting connected with public art opportunities are through:
- Request For Qualifications
- Request For Proposals
- Private Invitations
- Self-initiated Productions
The Request for Qualifications (RFQ) is the most common artist selection process currently in use by public agencies in America. RFQs are sent out like a “call for artists,” broadcast to specific regions or nationally. The RFQ outlines the project location, budget, scope, theme, timeline, and other specifics relevant to the project, and offers applicants instructions for submitting. Artists are usually asked to submit a letter of interest, a resume, and work samples of past work (with descriptions of each work sample). A selection committee is usually established (made up of key stakeholders) to review submissions and narrow the pool of applicants to a smaller number of finalists who are then contracted to produce proposals. It is standard practice to compensate artists for proposal development, although the amount varies from project to project; there are very few standards in the public art field. Finalists are given adequate time to develop proposals and then submit them for final review, often in an interview setting allowing for first-hand interaction with the committee.
RFQs are popular with commissioning agencies and artists because they are simple, don’t require much time at the outset, and offer the committee a spectrum of possible candidates. Successful applications provide committee members with a good idea of what they might expect from the artist, based on their qualifications and past work. The cover letter provides some insight as to how the artist might approach the opportunity, but they are not proposals. An RFQ can be widely distributed or sent to only a select number of artists, depending on restrictions that may be imposed by the funding source, the budget and the administrative time available for the project. “Invitational RFQs” are RFQs that are sent to a pre-selected, qualified pool of artists, and not broadcast to all artists.
The Request for Proposal (RFP) asks applicants to submit ideas, sketches and even budgets for a proposed project, often without compensation. Current best practices dictate that artists should be compensated for proposal development. If you ask an artist to create a design proposal, you should compensate them. This approach can work out well if you have a specific project in mind and access to a small number of competent artists that you believe are qualified for the job.
A Private Invitation would be the route to go if you are familiar with the work of a particular artist, you are on a short timeline, and you are not held to any sort of public review process by your funder or community. This can work out very well when both artist and commissioning agency are on the same page but does eliminate some of the adventure of the selection process. Some agencies maintain registries or utilize online registries to preselect artists and, instead of asking them for proposals, they invite a small group to visit the site and meet the committee. This method focuses on the artist, not the artwork, and presumes that all the candidates would be able to produce something great. After the interview, an artist is hired for the full job, with the understanding that their design must meet approval before fabrication can commence.
Directly selecting an artist is rarely done by public agencies that are required to vet candidates in a competitive fashion. It would be politically unwise to simply hire one artist and not give others a chance. Yet private corporations do this frequently, often with the aid of an art consultant or curator.
Self-initiated Productions avoid the entire artist selection process, and place the entire burden on the artist to design, develop and produce their project as best they can. There are both legitimate and legally sanctioned or permitted projects, and there are unexpected, illegal (and often temporary) projects. In order to obtain approvals, permits or grants, independent artists often find out that they must compromise or revise their original vision in order to proceed with their projects.
Participating in a selection process—as an artist and as a panelist—is a great way to get educated about public art. For panelists, it’s a great way to learn about artists working in the field, and in your area. If you are managing the committee process, it is helpful to educate your committee about public art and the type of projects that are possible. It is important to ensure that everyone is on the same page as far as goals and expectations for the project.
Once the committee has selected an artist they will need a contract to enable them to commence with the services you have determined in your call, or through discussion with the artist. The contract should address timeline, payment schedule, copyright, and many other topics. There are many sample contracts available to adapt for your use
Return Journey was prompted by a neighborhood group seeking help from a professional consultant to help them recycle a playground structure into a landmark sculpture. Forecast recommended three qualified candidates who lived in the surrounding community. Each of these candidates was hired to produce preliminary concepts in response to a project overview and present them to the group in an interview. The group, which included park users and youth volunteers as well as a professional curator, selected Randy Walker and he was subsequently contracted to develop his idea further and produce a scale model that could be used to help raise funds.
For the Sanford Center (formerly the Bemidji Regional Event Center), the City of Bemidji hired Forecast to facilitate an RFQ process. It was very important to the artist selection committee to open up the opportunity to local artists and to not extend the call for artists beyond the state. The committee also felt strongly that outreach should be made to local native artists. Forecast consulted its organizational artist roster and connected with the regional arts council to get recommendations for local artists. Forecast also asked area arts groups for recommendations. Since the call had such a strong regional focus there were many applicants that were new to public art. Forecast spent a great deal of time consulting with applicants on the expectations of the committee and offering advice and information pertaining to the RFQ. Artists submitted work samples and written information and Forecast facilitated the review in which committee members narrowed the pool to three finalists for each of the two projects. Finalists came from around the state and from the region. The group settled on one artist for each project and contracted with them independently of Forecast. The panel review process was considered a great experience for everyone and the panel was very serious in its commitment to represent the community they were chosen to represent. There was not 100 % agreement the transparent and organized selection process—with lots of space for discussion—helped the panelists feel confident in their decision making process. It was also useful to collect comments and feedback to pass back to the artists who are not selected. This information, which they rarely get, helps them understand why they may not have been a good fit for the project and helps them improve their chances with future presentations.
Proposal schematic from artist Barbara Keith
1,000 Print Summer was a grant-funded project through Forecast Public Art. This program is focused on developing self-initiated projects and encouraging artists to think like independent producers. The selection process for the grant program is different than the traditional artist selection process for a client or commissioning agency. Starting a grant program in your area is a great way to foster and incubate artists in their careers. A grant program that focuses on allowing an artist to experiment with their own ideas is beneficial for both the artist and the community. It enables the artist to learn while completing a project they are passionate about and it exposes the community to new innovations in public art. The ideas of the artist are really the laboratory that propels the field forward. Investing in the dreams of artists in your community can produce surprising results.