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Commissioning Public Art: 10 Essential Criteria in 2024

As public art consultants, Artelier's curators are specialists in developing a strategy for successful public art projects and managing the public art commission process. Responding to our clients' key questions, our curators have put together the essential guide for commissioning public art – read more to learn key considerations for public art projects, and delve into what is the purpose of public art.

Public art refers to any artwork in the public realm, and is used for expressing and communicating key aspects of a place or community – be that through history, local culture, current topics in society or a project’s identity. For that reason, many public artworks are site specific, and respond to their locality in an intriguing and meaningful way.

A common question is: what is considered to be public art? Whilst many people associate public art with outdoor sculptures or murals, it can take many different forms. Public art can be indoors or outdoors, permanent or temporary. It can be created using a wide variety of materials, as well as more experimental mediums such as performance art or through the use digital technology. It can be commissioned by a government, local council, a public body, a charity, a corporation, or a developer. The public can encounter public art as observers, or be invited to be active participants.

Despite this great variety, every public art project has common considerations that need to be decided before embarking on the commissioning process. As public art consultants, Artelier's curators have put together an essential guide for what makes public art successful, ensuring it will remain engaging for years to come.

1. How public art strategy informs the choice of artist

When beginning a project, correctly selecting an artist and deciding on an appropriate type of artwork is paramount – to do this, it is key to have a clear strategy from the onset. To build a strategy, it is necessary to have a deep understanding of several aspects: the objectives of the commissioning body, the context of the project, and understanding the audience and how they will encounter the artwork. Assessing how these intersect can reveal a unique quality of the project to focus on, and provide a meaningful foundation for further research and development.

These considerations will naturally inform the choice of artist. For instance, the objectives of the commission may suggest a particular subject matter, the context may encourage the use of a local material, and exploring how an intended audience uses the site may reveal the most impactful location for the artwork. Considering these factors leads public art consultants to identify multiple artists who are able to respond to the commission in a relevant and exciting way. The public art consultant uses these considerations to set parameters, which act as a guide for the shortlisting process, and lead to the eventual selection of the strongest ideas for a public art proposal.

2. How much does public art cost?

The cost of public art can vary hugely, and depends largely on the location of the artwork and how high profile the selected artist is. If intended for an outdoor space, an artwork has to be more durable, resistant, and also requires more stringent health and safety measures – materials suited for outdoor contexts therefore tend to be more expensive. This becomes especially important if the artwork is permanent, rather than a temporary installation. It would be expected to pay in excess of £30k for more affordable modern materials such as steel or resin; for a more classic cast bronze sculpture, this would be over £100k for a quality timeless piece. These figures, however, rise exponentially if working with a blue chip artist, where payment also factors in the artist’s prestige and reputation.

3. Choosing between emerging & high profile artists

In many of our projects, Artelier champions talented emerging artists, and our curators are accustomed to talent spotting early-career work which shows exceptional artistic ability. The advantage of working with emerging artists is that they often bring a new, fresh perspective, and are available at a lower cost. Alongside this benefit of greater value for money, the public art commission has the opportunity to promote an up-and-coming artist, which can incorporated as a key aim of the project and become a point of interest for the public.

If an emerging artist is chosen under the guidance of a public art consultant, there is no compromise on the quality of the commissioned artwork – not only can a public art consultant help clients discover artists who are capable of fulfilling an ambitious commission to a high standard, but they help support the artist in developing the piece and ensure it exceeds expectations.

For some public art projects, however, a high-profile artist is a more appropriate choice. A high-profile public art commission should be viewed as a long-term investment for the client. It can therefore be considered as an addition to an art collection, and even moved for display in different locations. This approach can be especially well-suited for a development looking to raise its profile, since providing a platform for a well-known artist can act as a draw for the public and become a marketing opportunity through their association.

4. Which materials to consider for permanent outdoor artworks

A permanent outdoor artwork needs to age well and remain in good condition for years to come. The chosen material needs to be easy to maintain, resilient and robust; some materials can even improve with time and weathering.

Materials such as bronze or patinated metals are a popular choice for this reason – with time outdoors, the colours of the patina evolve to be more vibrant and visually interesting through oxidation. More industrial-style metals such as Corten steel can also be appealing, as the metal already has an orange, rust-like appearance; over time, Corten steel blackens, which brings a dynamic natural evolution to the piece. It is worth keeping in mind that some metals, like stainless steel, whilst having long-term resistance to weathering can still show up imperfections – for instance, areas where the metal has been welded or bolted together can open up weaknesses in the material.

Certain natural stones are also a good option, although it is essential to assess the practicalities of each type of stone together with a knowledgeable artist and consultant. Igneous rocks such as granite are exceptionally hard and therefore highly resistant to weathering; however, the hardiness of granite also makes it difficult to carve, and therefore it is better suited to simplified forms rather than excessive detail. Limestone, like other sedimentary rocks, allows for more detail than granite, and is a relatively resilient option for outdoor art. Marbles are an attractive option for sculpture as they can be carved to exquisite detail and be brought to a high polish; however, acidic rain can deteriorate or discolour the surfaces of marbles over time, and so this should be considered in the development of the piece and its placement.

An experienced artist embraces these natural processes, rather than working against them, and considers how their work will age so that their sculpture becomes more beautiful with the coming years.

5. The benefits of temporary public art

Commissioning a temporary public artwork can often open up unexpected opportunities. A temporary artwork that is intended to last for less than three years can use more diverse materials, as extended weathering is less of a concern. More natural and less resistant mediums such as woods, delicate and ephemeral materials like woven willow, or highly technical pieces that require more upkeep and maintenance all become an option. Alternative practices such as performance art or complex installations that only last for the duration of an event can likewise be explored.

There are also logistical advantages to this approach, as pieces that are not intended to last more than a few years can often be created more quickly and at a lower cost. A temporary artwork can also be rotated every few years; this allows a new artist to respond to a different aspect of the context, and to connect with new ideas. The artwork therefore never becomes outdated, and instead remains relevant and dynamic – the public may feel more engaged with such artworks, which feel contemporary and interact with current society. Due to the nature of temporary work, as well as its typically lower cost, the commission can also take more of a risk – be that by commissioning a lesser known artist, or present a more challenging subject matter.

6. Alternative locations for public art

Public art is often associated with outdoor sculpture, yet in reality it can take many other forms. These alternative options for curating public art can provide a solution for sites without an ideal location for an outdoor sculpture.

A space efficient and visually engaging approach is to incorporate art into architecture. By nature, these artworks are very public facing, and inherently more interactive as the public can experience them while moving through and inhabiting a building. Such projects are typically ambitious, as they involve close communication between many different professionals. It is the role of the art consultant to facilitate the collaboration between artist, architects, contractors, engineers and developers, which is often necessary from the early stages of the project. In the strategy phase, the role of the art consultant is critical for identifying spaces within the architectural plans where integrating art would be possible and appropriate, and discovering artists whose work is suited to such contexts.

A popular option for integrating art in architecture is a mural – depending on the space, the mural can be outdoor or indoor, and be created from a wide variety of mediums, such as glass, mosaic, ceramics, metal, textiles, or paint. Murals can also be developed with easier installation in mind, and therefore can be added at the later stages of a project. Yet, there are many other adventurous opportunities for art within architecture; art can be integrated into the windows, ceiling, or floor, and can also serve a hybrid purpose, such as sculptural lighting fixtures or furniture. By involving an artist in the design process, the project also benefits from their creative vision and opens new ways to push boundaries within the existing scope of the project.

7. Raising engagement and participation

A growing trend in public art is to involve the public through participation, rather than considering them as passive viewers of the artwork. Instead, the public becomes a co-author of the work, which increases the artwork’s connection to local identity as well as raising greater public support. Participatory public art can take many forms, as there are multiple stages in which the public can become involved in the creation of the piece. The public can be included in the planning stages, such as through surveys or panel discussions, and thereby contribute to the selection of an artist or express a subject matter that is of interest to local people. A public art piece can also be built into a programme or event, which may already be developed for and with the public.

Community based public art projects can also actively involve the public in the artistic creation of the work – a lead artist may collaborate with local people to create the finished piece. Through interviews with the public, the artist could also choose to incorporate recordings or verbatim quotes into their artwork. Artworks in the public realm can also actively encourage interaction: this could be through the use of interactive digital technology, or by encouraging public participants to physically change and evolve the artwork. The result of any of these methods is a greater emphasis on place-making – art becomes an occasion for the community, and garners wider public interest and ownership.

8. The use of technology

Developments in digital technology have opened new opportunities for artists to interact with public spaces, and incorporate members of the public. Public art that uses digital technology can often be created to a much larger scale – art can be projected onto a structure, for instance, transforming an existing landmark into something entirely new. Another advantage is that it can also be non-invasive, requiring only temporary rigging of projectors and lights; this allows the art to interact with protected sites, such as Grade-listed buildings or heritage sites. Digital technology also allows the incorporation of changing data, such as artworks that respond to weather conditions, are programmed to change throughout the day, or visually present live statistics.

Technology can also enable a digital artwork to change depending on audience participation, featuring sensors that capture the movement of passers-by and reflect it in the artwork. The use of technology, however, is not limited to digital art. More traditional types of artworks, such as sculptures or murals, can feature QR codes or other interactive media on signs and labels. This can allow members of the public to experience additional audio or visual elements to the artwork, or discover more about the project through accessing educational materials.

9. Options for sustainable art

The possibilities for sustainable art have evolved over recent years, in response to the rising interest in lowering our collective impact on the environment. Sustainability in itself can also prove to be a rich concept and subject matter, as many sustainable artworks respond to the site in a meaningful way by interacting with the landscape or by recycling local materials.

By its nature, land art is an example of sustainable public art: land art is made directly in the landscape, by sculpting the land itself through the use of found natural materials. Since the artwork is created from organic and local resources, the piece is inherently in harmony with the ecology of the site and is non-disruptive. Many land art pieces are inevitably temporary, as nature continuously interacts with the artwork long after the involvement of the artist themselves.

The public shift towards respecting the environment has led many contemporary artists to incorporate sustainable practices into their art, regardless of whether sustainability is in itself a subject matter for their work. For instance, they may adopt naturally derived and low impact mediums – such as woods, ceramics, textiles made from natural fibres, and organic pigments in paint. Artists’ ingenuity and skill allow them to still produce a high-end aesthetic, and develop natural solutions for protecting artworks to make them durable. This allows greater opportunities for public art projects to promote sustainable art, as the overall look and practical needs of the artwork need not be compromised.

The use of recycled materials can also be an intriguing and engaging prospect. For instance, recycled materials that have been recovered from the local area can provide a connection to the locality and encourage the public to view mundane objects in a new way. It also offers a practical solution to making a long-lasting artwork whilst still helping the environment: complex materials that are challenging to industrially recycle or do not biodegrade can be repurposed in a new context.

10. The key to securing support from authorities

Any artwork commissioned for the public realm goes through rigorous planning and consultation in order to gain support from the relevant authorities – including the local council, administrative and funding bodies, and stakeholders. It goes without saying that compliance with necessary regulations, planning permissions and health and safety must be prioritised. Close discussion with the relevant professionals is needed at every stage of the project to ensure that these are being followed, in order to prevent later (and potentially expensive) changes. Considering these from the onset of a project raises confidence in the commission, and helps the creative process run more smoothly.

However, having a successful working relationship with such groups and gaining support from them goes much deeper than adhering to bureaucracy. The most successful public artworks deeply research and engage with the context of the project, and explore varied ways for the artwork to resonate with its locality and remain relevant. This process begins with listening to the vision of the council, developer, and local communities – from conducting initial consultations, to evolving the project in line with feedback. A coherent proposal that consolidates research and the varied insights of different authorities will inevitably be looked on more favourably, garner more support at key stages, and receive more funding where that is necessary. An artwork can still be adventurous, exciting and dynamic, as well as taking into account the objectives of relevant bodies.

The key to a public art proposal that achieves this is to assess the purpose of public art. Arguably, the most important factor is commissioning a piece that fosters a connection to the local area. The subject matter should deliver a message that the public want to engage with, and feels relevant to them; this message can educate, commemorate, tell a story, and provoke discussion. More simply, the artwork can also provide a focal point for an important space and beautify the community in a meaningful way.

Working with a local artist who understands the site on a personal level can also provide an additional layer of connection, and can feel more relevant than an artist who has no particular interests in the area. Regardless of the choice of artist, however, the most successful public art projects are always site specific, and feel uniquely made for that space. If an artwork is simply bought and placed in a public area, it can risk feeling generic or out of place. Perhaps more importantly, however, a bought artwork misses the opportunity for engaging with its locality – and in so doing, likely sacrifices the public’s own engagement with the artwork. Through this interaction between the public and the artwork, the project encourages lasting engagement and becomes important to the community.

Artelier are art consultants working across multiple sectors, including delivering public realm art projects in international locations. Approaching public art projects with a commitment to in-depth research and uncovering hidden narratives, each public art commission is developed uniquely for the project. Collaborating closely with artists, our public art consultants ensure that the vision of the project is met, whilst managing all logistics of installing and presenting the artwork.

Discover Artelier's public art projects, our approach to public art consultancy and our bespoke services on Artelier's dedicated public art homepage – click here for more.


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