As part of the effort to reinvigorate our public art conversations and bring more artists into the discussions, I agreed to enter the fray on best practices in the public art field.
I will bring up some instances when as artists we felt badly-used during project development and see if this can lead to a thoughtful conversation rather than just a bitching session.
I want to preface by saying that in 85% of the more than 40 built projects my partner Mags Harries and I have completed, we have had fair treatment and dedicated support from our project managers and client agencies for which we are very grateful. This is a very good batting average.
I should write a much longer entry singing the praises of our many project manager heroes. My apologies to all the good guys (actually mostly ladies) but hey, conflict makes for better stories and more blog comments. So this is about that other 15%.
What were the factors that caused these projects to go off the rails?
- There was confusion about what the client really wanted that did not jive with what the artist proposed to do—a fact revealed late in the process.
- The design team was not in agreement. There were personality conflicts within the team before the artist arrived and the other team members did not understand or agree on the artists’ role.
- The site for the artwork was not confirmed and the client kept changing the site without consulting the artist.
- The scope of work both for the artist’s tasks and the desired artwork were poorly defined and the client’s ambitions were not clear and project was insufficiently funded. In this one case, the project manager was dishonest about the artist’s performance.
- The members of the Arts Commission reviewing the project insisted on imposing their own aesthetic judgments that did not align with the artist’s ideas, which had been accepted by the client and community.
It is hard to say if these problems conflicted with best practices, lapses in management, or just unavoidable bad luck. Many times project administrators had limited control or influence over the other agencies or design team members. Sometimes the project manager was inexperienced and failed to anticipate the problems but the artist also may have misread the situation. Public art programs are often precarious situated in city administration and politically vulnerable, thus the administrator’s role is a difficult one.
Can such problems be avoided? My sense is that there is no perfect system.
A public art project is a voyage of discovery by a team of people who need to be ready for the adventure and willing to support each other. It is amazing that 85% of our projects happened successfully, it says a lot about the proportion of good people in this business. The 15% that did not work so well may be inevitable odds in this kind of work.
Have you had similar experiences? Share in the comments below!