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How to be a public artist: Four parts of the journey ahead

1. Going public

A public artist is often creating a specific work with a community or purpose in mind. An excellent public artist can maintain their creative voice while working with community input – often coming from multiple directions.

How will your work scale up for public consumption? Think human-centered design. How will people interact with your work? Touch it, feel about it, selfie it, destroy it? The best way to scale your work is incrementally. Start small and expand as you learn.

2. Make your own destiny

The best way to learn public art is by doing it. Consider asking to be an apprentice with an artist you admire. Public artists might exercise these muscles more often:

  • Community Engagement

Public art opportunities are out there, but you have to pay attention and put in the work. Start by googling “public art RFQ” or “public art RFP” Keep searching. Sign up for newsletters. Stay on your toes. Don’t waste your time on calls that clearly aren’t a good fit for your artistic strengths or capacity.  Here are some places to start:

Replying to a call for artists can be like sending a resume for a job opening. Put your best foot forward.

Not seeing the RFQ for you? Make your own opportunity.

3. Community engagement

Artists have a part to play in community engagement. Why? The best public art is not for the community, but with the community. When you engage the community by asking for their stories, opinions, creativity, or assistance, they will begin to see themselves in the piece. When you’ve won the trust and excitement of the people who interact with your artwork, they will be your advocates. They will bring you the tools when your equipment breaks down. They will chase off vandals. They are invited to take ownership in this public art piece – and maybe even be more civically engaged as a result.

You’re a critical piece of a (sometimes already existing) public art team. You shouldn’t be the only one engaging the community. Check out our advice to the non-artist teammates re:community engagement.

If you’re not a local, permanent part of the community, it’s best to engage the community alongside someone who is-- like the public art committee or project lead. If you’re not able to be part of the community engagement process before the installation begins, make sure you ask the local public art team to fill you in on what they’ve learned through community engagement. Consider ways you can build trust with the local community:

  • Hire local artists as apprentices or assistants
  • Ask to stay with a local family if the install is multiple days
  • Offer to give a talk at community events or to visit art classes

When the IAC talks about community engagement, we mean a process of building mutually beneficial, two way relationships with the people who care (or have the potential to care) about your work.

4. The details

If you’re bad a details, you need a partner who can organize. Have a conversation with the public art team and make sure everyone understands the expectations around these critical areas:

  • Design revisions. They will happen, so be open to change as people take in the artwork. Communicate what’s reasonable to adjust, and the impact of revisions on the rest of the project.
  • Budgeting. Communicate your fee, and any other expenses that will not be included in it. By the way-- it’s not your job to fundraise, but you can certainly help if you want.
  • Engineering and fabricators, including their timeline, transportation of the piece and expectations for unexpected costs.
  • Contracts. Know your legal rights as an artist.
  • Installation, including a backup plan for weather or complications.
  • Documenting. Don’t forget to take photos throughout the process.

Check out our planning advice to the rest of the team. Above all else, be ready to adapt.