In the last but one article the author talks about the process of commissioning of a public artwork and the differences existing in the regulation thereof depending on location.

Maria Boicova-Wynants,

Mediator, Business Writer, Trademark and Patent Attorney

How to get that sculpture to be put in the central square?

Commissioning of a public artwork


Commissioning process in different countries has certain variations and even more so, there is nowhere a procedure carved in stone. However, the general lines of commissioning process for public artworks, as well as principles and considerations to take into account remain alike whether “this desired central square” lies in Amsterdam, Sydney, New York or London. In this article I would like to go through the commissioning process of public artwork, highlighting the important steps and within them some attention and discussion points. As mentioned already, those are general considerations, that may (and do) have nuances in the particular country, region or even neighborhood.

To begin with, theoretically, any citizen or a group of citizens can initiate a public artwork. Most of the time the initiator (or better — the commissioner) is not a single physical person, but rather a fund, an association, a public or government body, or a group of artists or citizens. In other words, whoever has a vision. 

It all starts with a vision. Public artwork, as I said in the first article of this series, ideally is made for a specific location. This is especially true if the artwork is to be permanently put in a given location. There must be a link with the surroundings, connection not so much physical, as more essential. Public art is supposed to turn space into place. Therefore, precisely described vision is an essential starting point for the coming into being of public artwork. Good questions to ask at this stage are why the art project is to be realized and what might it mean in this particular context? Usually, these questions are well laid down in a brief, which also contains the context, description of the site and its constraints, anticipated scope of the work, selection criteria for an artist, submission requirements, as well as an anticipated level of involvement/engagement of a local community, etc.

In case the initiative of creating a public artwork does not come from the artist him- or herself, but rather from other interested stakeholders, there are several ways of commissioning an artist. All of them have their pros and cons both in terms of the access to talent and in terms of the costs for the commissioner. 

First of all, one could invite a particular artist. This direct invitation to create a public artwork usually involves an initial budget for an artist to complete the initial research and design based on the (vision) brief. Thus, even before the artist creates a final proposal for an artwork, s/he is already working and already being paid by the commissioner. Such a specific invitation to the specific artist is useful in case the vision of the commissioner is very much linked to the very specific artistic “touch”. For example, if the artist is known for a particular type of works and the commissioner wants to have exactly that type of work realized, it might make sense to contact this particular artist. Aside from the costs, the con of this approach is, of course, that there are no options, no possibility to see different perspectives, nor to engage in a dialogue with a diverse group of artists. 

The second option would be to open up the competition to several, select artists. In this case, there is a possibility to receive various artistic solutions and ideas to choose from. As with the first option of inviting a particular artist, in the case of the limited competition, artists invited to participate in making proposals are receiving a certain fee from the commissioner. 

Finally, the third option would be to have a competition, open to all interested parties. In this option, the commissioner of public artwork has the possibility of tapping into the vast creative pool of talent. Usually, in practice, the third option is realized in two stages. In the first stage, all interested artists have access to a brief (a general description of the site and the vision for an artwork), and they need to submit their letter of interest, resume and examples of relevant previously made artworks, showcasing their skills, talents, and potential. Based on this submission the selection of an artist (-s) is made. In the second stage, the selected artists are then provided with a more detailed description of intentions and wishes of the commissioner, and against a small fee are asked to submit their more detailed proposal (the preliminary proposal). This stage is pretty much like the second option of the limited competition.[1] 

The preliminary proposal stage in practice lasts for about two to three months. During this period the artist (-s) examines the location, performs the additional research and creates a detailed proposal. “Detailed” at this stage does not yet include the completely worked-out budget, however, the preliminary proposal should give a pretty good overview of what the commissioner might expect as a result. Frequently at this stage, there is also an interaction between the artist and the art commission (set up to realize this particular public artwork), public (in case there was a decision to set-up a public discussion group), and/or other stakeholders. The preliminary proposal stage is usually based on a separate contract between the commissioner and the artist. The object of this contract is the creation of the preliminary proposal.

Upon the approval of the preliminary proposal, the artist has to deepen it further to complete the final proposal. In practice, frequently the final proposal and the actual realization of a public artwork are subject to one agreement, however, the parties could also decide to split those two stages into two separate agreements. On the content side, the final proposal has to address both the content of an artwork and all the practicalities. Thus, the technical construction calculations, an estimate of risks, health and safety considerations, concrete agreements with contractors (if that’s the case), budget, insurances, all the necessary information for requesting the permits, planning of the delivery and the worked-out requirements for maintenance — all this needs to be included in the final proposal. 

In terms of permits, while it is usually a responsibility of the artist, the parties might agree that it is the commissioner who is going to secure the necessary permits. In this case, the artist must provide all the information and documentation necessary for applying for the permit. An important discussion point vis-a-vis the division of responsibilities is maintenance. Questions on potential damage repair, graffiti, as well as maintenance in general, are to be discussed and agreed upon at the stage of the final proposal.

After the public artwork has been completed and delivered, the commissioner becomes its owner. To note that the copyright in an artwork still a priori belongs to the artist. The artist likewise (if not agreed upon differently) remains the owner of all the sketches, drawings, designs and maquettes that were created in the course of the commissioning of public artwork. 

In this article, I provided the general description of the public art commissioning process, however, as mentioned in the very beginning, in different areas (countries, regions, cities, neighborhoods) there are certain peculiarities. Some cities have a well-described public art policy, which provides a detailed account of the vision and intentions of the city vis-a-vis public art located therein. Therefore it is advisable to explore the guidelines of the particular location of interest. Of course, also the commissioning process as such is not the only way how an artwork can be “put in the central square”, as the artwork can just be bought from the artist and placed in a location. This undoubtedly saves time and effort for all parties involved. On the other hand, unless such artwork is a surprisingly perfect fit for space, it will be subordinate in quality compared to the artwork commissioned and created for this particular context. 


[1] In the US practice, there are two abbreviations frequently used in connection with public artwork commissions: RFQ and RFP. RFQ stands for Request for Qualifications and RFP — for Request for Proposals. This corresponds to the traditional stages when the artists first, express their general interest and prove that they are qualified to execute such a public commission; and second, for those selected to submit a full-fledged proposal in the limited competition setting.

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