Taking the Art World Approach: Evaluating Public Art as an Investment
The idea of art as an investment is by no means a new concept. Art collectors jet set to major fairs in Hong Kong, Basel, and Sao Paulo hoping to secure their next big investment purchase; gallery owners and curators are constantly on the scout to discover the “next big artist”; and auction houses are drawing in record sales for artworks.
As administrators of public art, it is vital that we take some clues from the art world and evaluate public art as an investment for our community and start scouting for that “next big artist” who lives and works in our community.
The unique nature of public art inherently makes it one of the most valuable and exponentially increasing public assets for a community. I have the great fortune of working for Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places (MDAPP), which boasts a collection of nearly 700 works of public art.
Throughout its 40-year history, the program has commissioned some of the most significant contemporary artists in the world to create one of a kind, site-specific works of art. As with most works of public art, the commissioning cost of these works only reflects a percentage of their current value.
For example, in 1985 artist Edward Ruscha was commissioned by the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places Trust to create “Words Without Thoughts Never to Heaven Go”, a site-specific installation for the Main Library consisting of eight 16-foot-long panels mounted around the lobby’s rotunda. The work was commissioned for approximately $300,000.
Since the time of this commission, Ruscha’s career has skyrocketed, and I’ll never forget the day our office received a phone call asking if we would sell the work for $6 million. (I should make it clear that the caller’s offer was politely declined, with the understanding that the public art collection was not for sale.)
So, when that new public art commission comes along, perhaps public art administrators should advise their committee members to start thinking like a collector.
Look at artists whose work would be an investment for your community. Take a thorough look at the artist’s resume, notice which galleries are showing the work, and which major institutions are collecting the work.
It’s also important to take risks with public art, discover that “next big artist” and support the careers of local, emerging visual artists.
Although the MDAPP collection boasts some heavy hitter names, we are also very invested in furthering the careers of visual artists who live and work in Miami-Dade County. In addition to the Art in Public Places program, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs oversees the South Florida Cultural Consortium (SFCC) Fellowship Program, which offers one of the largest regional, government-sponsored artists’ grants in the United States, awarding $15,000 and $7,500 fellowships to resident visual and media artists from the five counties.
Since it was established in 1988, the consortium has awarded close to $2 million in fellowships to over 200 artists. The fellowship program receives over 300 applications each year, affording our staff the opportunity to take a fresh look (removed from public art) at the work that is being created in our local studios.
In fact, it is not uncommon for a fellowship recipient (or applicant) to receive a public art commission.
"Reflect" by Ivan Toth Depeña, 2011 Interactive Video Panels Miami-Dade County Public Art Collection
In 2011, artist Ivan Toth Depeña, a Miami native and former recipient of the SFCC Fellowship, was awarded his first public art commission. The site was extremely high profile—the lobby of our Government Center—which is the entryway to the 29-story headquarters building of Miami-Dade County government. This work, which I repeat was Depeña’s first public commission, would become one of the most visible works of public art in the MDAPP collection.
Completed in November 2011, the artwork (entitled Reflect) resulted in a dynamic installation of permanent, site-specific public art that illuminates, engages, and responds to the activities of the lobby space.
Due to its high visibility, Reflect is now considered one of the most prominent works of public art in the county and has generated increased interest and awareness of the public art program from other county departments, citizens, and employees.
Visitors and employees have commented that Reflect has transformed the lobby into a bright, welcoming and interactive space that symbolizes the spirit of excellence and public responsiveness of county government.
The work is pioneering technological advances in new media art and utilizes a custom software system designed by the artist. Here's a video of the installation:
This is only one example of an investment in a local artist that paid off exponentially.
Public art programs should support the careers of local artist and serve as a platform for the trajectory of their work.
Take a risk on that promising artist who has a fabulous portfolio, even if they don’t have public art experience under their belt. The reward may be well worth it.