On Public Art & Going "Feral" : Five Questions for Lynn Basa
Lynn Basa is a full-time artist living in Chicago. Her practice is focused on painting and public art. Formerly an instructor in the Sculpture department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she is currently attending graduate school at SAIC in its new Low-Residency MFA program. Lynn is also the author of of The Artist’s Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions (2008).
On April 14, Lynn leads her Creative Capital Professional Development Program webinar, Demystifying Public Art, which will cover all aspects of researching and applying for public art commissions for visual artists. We had the chance to talk with Lynn about her current work, misconceptions surrounding public art, and her thoughts on NYC’s recently drafted bill that would allow New Yorkers to have a greater say in the city’s public art selection.
Hannah Fenlon: Tell me what you’re working on.
Lynn Basa: I just wrapped up some large public art commissions for Salt Lake City and Portland, OR and have moved on to suspended sculptures and mosaic for an 11-story atrium in a skyscraper in Chicago. I also just won a commission for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to do a terrazzo floor in a new science building. I’ve got a bunch of painting commissions lined up for the rest of the year, too. In grad school right now I’m working on some sculptural paintings that feel like a breakthrough for me. I’m quite distracted by them.
Hannah: You’ve been on “both sides of the table” in terms of deliberating about public art (as chair of the Seattle Arts Commission’s Public Art Committee, an Advisor for the 49th Ward Public Art Program in Chicago, etc.). What has this dual lens taught you about the process, and what have been your most surprising revelations?
Lynn: It’s taught me that I’m much more cut out to be an artist than an administrator or community activist! That was a revelation. My self-identity has always been tied to administration starting with my first Master’s degree in Public Art Management and Policy and then in my day job as a corporate art curator. In addition to those jobs I was working in my studio developing as an artist 30 – 40 hours a week. Now that I’m a full-time artist and know what it feels like to live every day in sync with my center, there’s no going back. I’ve gone “feral” as a friend of mine once said.
Hannah: Your “Demystifying Public Art” webinar will hopefully dispel some myths and fears that artists have about finding public art commissions, and support them as they create portfolios and applications. What are some of the misconceptions about this process, and about creating public art in general?
Lynn: Well, one of the misconceptions I used to have is that if I can do it, anyone can. I’ve since discovered that not everyone is cut out for it. If there’s one thing I hope to accomplish with this webinar it’s to provide a glimpse into what it takes to find and win public art commissions. That way, artists will be armed with the knowledge to decide whether public art is for them before they waste time going down that path. Another big misconception that I write about in my book (and could go on at length about) is that the public art system is not the same as the gallery/museum system. The criteria for what is considered successful work is quite a bit different. That’s why I assigned webinar participants the homework to read Miwon Kwon’s essay, “Sitings of Public Art: Integration vs Intervention.” She puts these distinctions into critical and historical context. Any artist who reads it will come out understanding where they fit—or if they even want to try to fit.
Hannah: NYC City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer has just drafted a bill that would allow New Yorkers to have more agency in the selection and display of public art in the city. Any thoughts about how this might impact artists who are looking for public art commissions?
Lynn: That really caught my eye when I first heard the news. I have so much to say about this I hardly know where to start. It immediately took me back to the time when I decided to open up the selection process for a collection I curated at the University of Washington Medical Center to anyone who wanted to participate. About 150 people showed up. One of my long-standing art committee members—a brilliant scientist—pointed out that what would happen is a statistical phenomenon known as “regression to the mean,” meaning that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement, and vice versa. He was referring to the voting method I had devised, and the fact that even if the voting outcome is wide-ranging at the outset, the votes might eventually start to trend towards one or two selections. It made me wonder if it would have the same effect on the kind of artwork chosen. Is there an artwork equivalent of the regression to the mean phenomenon? If entire communities were involved in voting on every piece of public art that was submitted, would we end up with some kind of aesthetic average?
The 49th Ward in Chicago took this approach in choosing artwork for murals. They used a participatory democracy approach—after some other arts professionals and I had screened the choices available to the public from about 300 to 30 proposals. They had artists submit hard copy proposals, but I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be done online. I don’t like the idea of artists being asked to come up with a concept at the open call stage like that, but it’s also a good way for artists who haven’t done a public art commission before to get some experience and exposure.
Hannah: What have been some of your favorite public spaces for which you’ve created art? Is there a place/organization you dream of creating something for?
Lynn: One of the things I love about making art for public places is that I never know where it’ll take me next. I’ve done permanent installations for airports, parking garages, a bunch for university campuses. The one I just finished in Portland was for nine transit stations. I’d really like to do something for a library one day. I want to create experiences with the artwork that unfold over a distance, like a narrative or series of discoveries.
Don’t miss your opportunity to spend more time with Lynn in her April 14th webinar, Demystifying Public Art. For more information on Lynn and her work, check out her website here.