How Big Public Art is Done When It’s Done by Grownups

The fact that the South Portland tank project was done using mass calls for artists and jury selection from hundreds of entries mark it as a provincial undertaking. In the real world, great projects aren’t done that way. Juries and mass calls are done by local arts organizations and percent-for-art projects.

Here’s the way grownups do it: You get someone who really has deep knowledge of the field, tell them the proposed budget and ask them to name some artists who could do it. This may not necessarily be a list of people who have done something like that before, but who do have the capacity to bring it off. You might also add some non-artistic factors, such as having some artists included who have ties to, in this case, Maine.

You then take that list, maybe six or a dozen artists, find which of them are interested, and give them each enough money to develop a proposal. You then get a board of decision-makers who have significant art experience and who also know the lay of the land where the project will be executed. Here in Maine that’s a big pool of qualified people from which to create the final selection board.

One difficulty this tank project might encounter would be the low budget. Since so much of the money goes to its technical execution and so little to the artist, and since the artist will be spending so much time on it, weeks and probably months, the resulting wages would be pretty small. The only real benefit to the artist would be the line on the resume, and what you really want for a project like this is someone who doesn’t need that.

Here’s my rule of thumb for any public art project: If you don’t know who you want to do your big project before you start, then don’t do it. If I wanted to paint a tank in Maine, I’d probably ask Mark Wethli or Charlie Hewitt to do it.

But I’m not sure I’d want to paint a tank. One of the great things about visual art is its privacy; you go to look at it voluntarily when it suits your time and needs. Tank-painting is always in your face, wish it or not.

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