Demystifying Public Art – The Basics

Delving into public art can seem like a daunting process. Between finding public art commissions, creating effective portfolios, and working out the difference between RFQs (Requests for Qualifications) and RFPs (Requests for Proposals), it’s easy to get lost before you’ve really begun.

work no. 2630, understanding (2016)

Martin Creed, “Understanding”, 2016; Martin Creed Work No. 2630 UNDERSTANDING, 2016. Courtesy the artist, Gavin Brown’s enterprise New York/Rome, and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Jason Wyche, Courtesy Public Art Fund, NY © Martin Creed 2016

Lynn Basa is the author of The Artist’s Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions (2008). In her book, she tackles doubts and questions artists may have around the selection process, whether public art requires specific skills, and any lingering fears about the possibility of “selling out” by creating art for the general public. 

What do we mean by “Public Art”?
As the name implies, public art is art created with the intention of being accessible in a public space to the general public.
Funding for public art projects is generated through a variety of channels:

  1. Percent-for-art programs – Individual state, county and city governments decide through legislation that a certain percentage of capital funds dedicated to infrastructure or development be set side to fund public art projects.
  2. Private foundation grants – Private foundations can issue grants to individual artists or to art organizations with the express purpose of funding publicly accessible art.
  3. Corporation commissions– Corporations often commission artists to create work for their public spaces.
  4. Community sponsorships – Community groups can choose to sponsor a particular project for display in their neighborhood.
  5. Individual fundraising – Individual artists can raise the funds for a specific project.

What are potential benefits of working in public arts?
Public art projects present a variety of potential upsides to artists. Artists may be given the opportunity to:

  1. Work at a larger scale with new materials
  2. Think about their work in a completely different context
  3. Have their work seen by a new and varied audience
  4. Diversify their income stream

Where does one apply for public art commissions?
Applying for public arts commissions through percent-for-art programs is free – the trick is knowing where to look.
Commissions are publicized through “calls-for-artists” put out by public arts agencies in various states, cities or counties.
Artist leader Lynn Basa suggests signing up to receive regular updates on calls-for-artists from various public arts agencies as well as arts publications that compile lists of calls to increase your odds of finding a commission that interests you.
Here are some of our favorite public art resources to get you started:

More Online Resources