Public Art 101: What to Expect When You’re Expecting (to be a Public Artist)

     Hi Everyone! I recently noticed the lack of user-friendly online resources for artists who want to find out how to acquire public art commissions. Over the years working as a public artist in Montreal, I’ve learned some valuable tips and tricks. I’ll be doing a series of biweekly posts here on my blog to share my experiences and hopefully to inspire those who may be having a tough time breaking into the industry.

     The things I’ll talk about here might seem a little overwhelming but will hopefully save you some stress and anxiety in the long run. Besides, as an artist you’re probably already used to stepping outside your comfort zone!

Be Smart With Your Budget

     I know of a few people (I won’t mention any names) who have lost out on making money from huge public art commissions because they weren’t careful enough with their initial budget. The total artwork budget includes your artist’s fee, copyright, fabrication, materials, insurance, installation, and possibly others. Typically, the artist fee is around 15-20% (25% in exceptional cases) of the total budget. Some of this should be allocated toward copyright, and some for your fee. The ratio of this can depend on how much work you will be doing on the project. Copyright allocation is important because this is the amount you are given for the copyright of your artwork design FOREVER!  It’s also important for tax purposes. Copyright fees get calculated differently. Ask your accountant.

     Often, there is no money left over for landscaping in the overall construction budget. If that’s important for the artwork, put it into your own budget. Landscaping always goes in at the end of construction so unfortunately, the budget allocated for that is often gone or over-budget by then.

It’s Not Only Creative Work

     You’re going to need some leadership and people skills to excel in this line of work. Expect to be a project manager: You’ll be liaising with administrators (from the government as well as the commissioning body), fabricators, architects, possibly engineers, other subcontractors, or employees. For commissions with Cities, there can also be a lot more interaction with City Council. In some cases, you may have to do a presentation at a Council meeting.

You’re Going to Have to Walk Your Talk

     You can expect that you have to do exactly what you proposed you’d do. For the Quebec program, there is almost no wiggle room. As they say, “it wouldn’t be fair to the other artists to modify the design”. So that means when you pitch your idea and your budget you’d better have done your homework and know that it’s a realistic budget.

     I know you’re thinking, “this seems like a lot of work, I’m not sure if I’m up to the job,” but I can tell you that practice does make it easier over time, and besides, you don’t have to complete the whole project from inspiration to inauguration in a single day! This is the kind of thing that works best if you break it down into little steps and stay open to lots of help from outside parties.

    Leave your comments, questions and tips for other artists below, I’m looking forward to hearing your feedback and I’m happy to answer any specific questions you might have. Also, check out my Pinterest and Instagram accounts for inspiration. Over the next few weeks we’ll get into the specifics of what the Quebec Percent-for-Art program is and how to apply for it.