Notes for the Public Artist: Whatís expected of a public artist?
by Douglas MacCash

To the artist considering stepping into the public art arena:
Ordinarily your choice of style, materials, timetable, and costs are more or less a personal matter. Not so with public art. When you accept a public commission, you become a small contractor, providing a service for a fee. You will have to read contracts, write invoices, keep records Ė all those things you became an artist to avoid. Thereís no need for you to abandon your personal vision or artistic integrity, but you should be prepared to enter into a series of compromises with the funder, often an architect, and the public at large. If, as an artist, youíre unwilling to do that, save yourself the heartache of public art.

In most cases the budget for the commission will already be set: you get $7000 to paint a 20 foot mural, for example. On occasion you might be asked to propose a budget: how much would you charge to paint a 20 foot mural? Budgeting is a personal matter, but hereís a reasonable guideline. First assemble a list of material costs: wood for stretchers, $200; canvas, $25; gesso, $50; paint, $300 and miscellaneous, $25. If you have to hire someone to help you build or install the work, be sure to include that cost: letís say youíll hire an assistant for 3 days for $240. Be as thorough and accurate as possible with your cost estimates, then add 25% to be certain. Next, estimate the number of hours youíll spend on the project. This is difficult, but come up with a reasonable figure: letís say 120 hours. Multiply that by a reasonable hourly fee for your labor: say, $15. Again add 25%, because nothing ever goes as smoothly as you imagine. If you have overhead costs for your studio (this is what it costs you, annually, in rent, utilities, insurance, etc. to operate a studio, divided on a monthly or weekly basis), add them in: letís say $450 for 3 weeks.

Okay, that means that it would cost you about $3,750 to do the project. Now, should you receive something above your hourly fee? Yes, you should charge for your design and your expertise. Add 15%: $563. So, now you know you can do the job and feel well compensated for $4,313. If you need to propose the budget, you can ask for $4500 with the confidence that youíll stay within the fee. If the commission is set at $7000, all the better. It doesnít always work out that well. Sometimes you simply canít complete a commission in your style, in a certain type of material, for the proposed fee. You need to know that going in. Sometimes youíll decide that you want to do the commission badly enough that you will sacrifice your artistís fee, or even your labor. Thatís fine, but you should still establish a rock-bottom cost, beyond which you cannot go without loosing money. Itís foolish to complain about the low fee for a commission that you agreed to execute of your own free will.

If your temperament or lifestyle doesnít allow you to arrive at appointments or to complete projects on time, public art commissions may not be for you. During the process of most major public commissions, youíll have to show up at planning meetings, show the progress youíve made on a project at the halfway point, and, of course, finish on time. Unexpected circumstances, like building delays (when you are part of an architectural project) or rain (when you are installing an outdoor project) are inevitable and you wonít be held accountable for them. There is often a clause in public art projects that stipulates a monetary penalty for late completion.

Itís your responsibility to design art that will hold up in the environment in which it is placed. Is the paint you plan to use lightfast? Will the metal rust? Do you intend to maintain the work regularly over the long haul, or will the city or building maintenance department do it? The less maintenance necessary, the better.

Being part of a team:
If you feel that your every idea is so excellent and exclusive that to alter it in the least would be a sin, public art will only frustrate you. Nobody wants you to change your style, but the architect has a certain color range in mind, the city council would like the art to reflect the history of the locale, and the piece of art must be 20 ft. by 5 ft. rectangle. Composer Jay Weigel says that he never learns more than when heís working for a client who has a strict set of guidelines. The question is, can Weigel write a score that satisfies all of the clientís stipulations to perfection without sacrificing his own creative integrity? By attempting to do so, he pushes and pulls his own style in directions it would never have gone if he were only satisfying himself. Thatís the ideal public art attitude.

Public acceptance:
Is your work suited for viewing by a wide public? There have always been debates about the appropriateness of nudity, political content, inscrutability, etc., in public art. At one time or another, almost anything can be appropriate Ė or not. Consider the audience. The public likes to be excited, challenged, and intrigued by public art, but they donít like to be offended, inconvenienced, or completely baffled. In my opinion, the best public art is understandable to any intelligent person, even if they donít have a Master of Fine Arts degree and a subscription to Artforum magazine.

So there you have it. At every turn, public art demands that you alter your singular point of view to accommodate the wishes of others. Frankly, it can be very trying compared to working alone in your studio, but the rewards of communicating with the broader public Ė most of whom rarely darken the door of an art gallery Ė are priceless. Many of your fellow artists in the past have accepted the challenge: Michelangelo, Rodin, Matisse, Calder, Miro, and Stella to name a few.