Best Practices in Public Art Project Selection

Posted by Lester Burg, Feb 13, 2013 0 comments

Lester Burg Lester Burg

One of our most enjoyable tasks as public art administrators is telling an artist they have been chosen for a commission. Getting to that point is a long process, which differs across the country, but our goal is the same—select the best artist for the site and have those involved feel good about the process.

In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) oversees commuter rail and subways. MTA Arts for Transit (AFT) commissions permanent public art when stations are rehabilitated or constructed. Our selection process has worked well over the past 26 years, with 243 completed projects and 50 in process. With hundreds of stations in diverse communities, we have deep experience in the selection process for projects large and small. The process is the same for all.

Artist selection is different from buying widgets and we are fortunate to have internal colleagues who sanction and understand our need for arts professionals to participate in artist selection (MTA is a state agency). Over the years, we have learned to leave little to chance and to tightly organize the panel meetings, so that everyone feels satisfied the process was thorough and fair.

Artists respond to a “Call for Artists” that describes the project and submittal requirements which include digital selections from their portfolio of existing work and their credentials. These are posted at and promoted through arts organizations, or in publications for major projects. Most agencies use a similar approach.

We do not exclusively seek public artists, or artists with a public art track record. Transit systems like New York’s have infrastructure limitations and we are moving people through a space to get them somewhere else. Since the artists’ work is interpreted into the project’s medium—stainless steel, glass, mosaic or ceramic, to name a few, by an artisan or fabricator they choose, the artist need not be experienced in the designated medium.

The project manager reviews submittals and presents a group of about 30 artists to the selection panel. At MTA Arts for Transit, the selection panel has five voting professionals:

1) an Arts for Transit representative
2) an artist who has completed a similar project with AFT
3) the project designer/architect
4) two arts professionals from the community in which the transit station is located (curator, art historian, museum director, etc.).

Community representatives and elected officials are invited and encouraged to share their points of view and preferences, but it is the five-voting member who make the ultimate choices. Arts for Transit chairs the panel. An MTA procurement officer observes meetings. Here's what a selection panel meeting often looks like:

Panelists view and discuss a project proposal. Panelists view and discuss a project proposal.

A presentation highlighting works in the MTA collection starts the meeting and the panel then reviews images of artists’ work and biographical information, taking several hours to discuss and then vote on approximately finalist pool. The hard work is reducing the applicant pool to allow enough time to discuss the artists the panel is most interested in.

The community representatives provide valuable information and contribute what artist’s work and process seem most suited to the community. Decisions are based on artistic distinction and the best fit of artist and project. Four finalists are named and produce proposals for the second meeting of the panel, which selects one proposal for the commission.

There are many enjoyable aspects of helping bringing art to public audiences and selection panels where there are frank discussions and thoughtful deliberation of how an artist meets the challenge. The MTA’s process has been proven over time, resulting in art being part of the daily travel for millions.

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