Choosing Artists and Agencies

Choosing Artists and Agencies

Like any partnership or relationship, it’s important that the artist and municipality are a good match. Here are some things to think about when choosing a partner.

Identifying the Municipal Agency

Most M/A partnerships involve working with a municipal agency, such as the Department of Transportation or the Department of Health. Often, the agency is predetermined by the municipal initiative that the partnership is grounded in. If that’s not the case, then a municipality can put out a call for interest.

Either way, it’s important to understand the nature of the agency. Some questions to ask include:

  • What are the agency’s mission, goals, and aspirations?
  • Who does it represent and serve?
  • How are its activities embedded in larger municipal goals?
  • How is the agency’s history relevant to the project— for example its past work, community context, successes and failures, community connections?
  • Does the agency already have experience working with artists?
  • Would an artist bring different skills and perspective to an issue the agency is working on or facing?

Different people can initiate connections with a municipal agency:

  • A city staff member or a third-party partner such as a Cultural Affairs Department can approach individual agencies to consider hosting an artist. They can also hold meetings to present the program and/or artists’ work to potential agency partners, and learn about agencies’ interest, readiness, and capacity to partner. See the City of Los Angeles' Creative Catalyst program, or the Fargo project, for examples.
  • An agency head or commissioner may seek to imbed an artist in a particular departmental initiative.
  • A neighborhood association or community group may seek out a municipal partnership with a particular agency in mind.
  • An artist may approach an agency and propose a partnership.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this strategy is artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who, in 1976, wrote a letter to the Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, which sparked a partnership that has continued for over 40 years.

It’s very important that the municipal agency has the capacity and is ready to take on an M/A partnership. Some things to look for:

  • Evidence of senior staff involvement or broad department interest in and commitment to a partnership
  • A staff member who can serve as the artist’s liaison, who has access to decision makers, enthusiasm about the partnership, and the time to do the job
  • Understanding of the opportunity, expectations, and requirements
  • Commitment to cooperative and reciprocal learning
  • Agency stability. For example, they are not going through a period of sudden growth or shrinkage, public controversy or pressure, or a budget crunch that could keep leadership from fully supporting the project
  • The initiative to be addressed is aligned with an agency priority

For more on gauging agency readiness, see this questionnaire.

Identifying the Artist

Being inspired by an artist is a great starting point for exploring a partnership, but the artist’s particular practice, fit with the project/issue, and personality are very important. While agencies will have experience hiring consultants or contractors, choosing an artist is very different.

Generally, the agency should learn about the nature of the artist’s work. Do their past projects, intentions and skills fit with the agency’s mission? What is their style of community engagement? Here are some additional criteria to consider:

  • What level of experience is needed? Does the scale, complexity, and nature of the project require a highly experienced artist? Or can you work with a promising artist who can gain skill and capacity through the project, perhaps with support like mentoring or training?
  • Does the artist need specialized skills or knowledge to work on a particular issue? For example, if they partner with an agency that works on domestic violence, will they need to have experience in working with people who have dealt with trauma? Or will agency staff fulfill that role?
  • Is it important that the artist share the same cultural identity or be otherwise familiar with the place, culture, or particular population they will be working with? Is it important to speak the dominant language of that community? Or is it enough that they are culturally aware?
  • What will the artist’s role be? Will they be making art with agency staff and/or community residents, or will their role be more curatorial, identifying and coordinating other artists for project components or venues? Will their role have specific requirements, like facilitating dialogues or training staff in creative techniques for their community engagement work?
  • Do they have an affinity for working in a civic context? Municipal partnerships call for artists who like to work with diverse groups of people, are patient in the face of bureaucracy, and value what other sectors bring to a project.

For the Art At Work program (Portland, ME), artist and program director Marty Pottenger often curated local artists to work with specific departments. Her selection criteria included the artist’s

  • Ability to be part of a team, not always the center of attention
  • Spirit of public service
  • Commitment to excellent art-making process and product
  • Ability to listen
  • Good judgement
  • Public profile so that the impact of the work might resonate in the art world
  • Fundamental belief in diversity

She meets separately with agency leaders and staff so that they can be more candid, and asks them to articulate:

  • What is the issue you hope an artist might help improve?
  • What have you tried? What has made a difference?
  • What would you like to see to make things better?

The Artist Selection Process

Once municipalities have determined their criteria for an artist partner, they should decide how to run the selection process. Key steps are:

Determine who participates in the artist selection process

Decide who will design, facilitate, and make the final decision in the selection process. Will the municipality work with advisors who can bring valuable knowledge, expertise or perspective outside of your agency? Will stakeholders—representatives of the community who will be directly involved and are meant to benefit from the project—have input?

Create a selection committee

This committee interviews and discusses finalists together. The committee should be diverse and represent the breadth of project stakeholders, including:

  • The project instigator and/or project manager
  • An agency representative, ideally someone in a leadership position. The host agency needs to be comfortable with the artist selected since that relationship is critical to the success of a project.
  • Other artists with civic experience or expertise on the particular issue
  • Community stakeholders

Invite artists to apply

A public call is the most democratic way to identify and secure artists—some municipalities require an open solicitation of proposals. This competition can be open to all artists, or limited and directed to a specific group, for example limited by discipline, geography, or expertise on an issue. Other restrictions that might affect the breadth of the call to artists include budget, time frame, staffing, and other resources. Either way, you want to cast a wide enough net to get a diverse pool of prospects.

RFQs vs RFPs

The call for artists can be structured as a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or Request for Proposals (RFP). RFQs are most commonly used because they ask only for the artist’s qualifications for the first stage. Requesting a proposal at the start means an enormous amount of work for the artist, who has no assurance that the project will move forward. RFPs also limit the opportunity for the artist to collaborate with the host and community to determine specifics of the project. With an RFQ, only once an artist makes the first cut are they asked to create a proposal. RFQs typically include:

  • Project Description: Description of the host agency, name and title of the project facilitator, and an overview of the initiative or issue
  • Project Context: Background information about the issue or initiative, information about agency processes, and project goals
  • Selection criteria and selection process, including eligibility guidelines
  • Budget: Funds available to fully realize the project including material costs, insurance, etc., and the artist’s fee. The majority of municipalities discussed in this guide paid an artist fee ranging from $10,000 - $40,000 for part-time work over one year.
  • Application Submission Process: The format for submissions, and deadlines
  • Application Materials: This usually includes a letter of interest, an artist statement, work samples, and a CV.
  • Project Timeline: This can include dates of information sessions for the RFQ; selection process timeline including notification; and dates for beginning and completing the partnership project.

RFPs typically include all of the above and additionally ask for a detailed proposal and project budget.

See sample RFQs:

Publicizing the Call for Artists

Municipalities can post the RFQ to their jobs portal, and through press releases to local media. They should also identify places where opportunities for artists are frequently posted. Cross-promote the call through the municipal arts agency, local arts and other community organizations, and art schools and universities. They can also hire a public art consultant to help with publicity. Websites like CafeEntry, Rivet, and Alliance for Artist Communities promote opportunities for artists.

It’s important to spread the word through diverse channels so that you get a diversity of applicants. Accessibility is also key—for example if the project is to take place in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood, put out the call in Spanish. It’s also helpful to host information sessions in the community to get the word out and answer questions artists might have.

Review Responses to the RFQ

Consider the artists’ qualifications, sensibilities, and experience in relationship to the agency and its goals.

The selection committee narrows the applicant pool down to a small number of finalists and invites them to submit a proposal. Municipalities should avoid prescribing direction for artistic outcomes, as the developmental stage of the project will further define the nature of the creative work. It’s common professional practice to pay artists to prepare a proposal, which could range from $500 to $5,000, although typically fees are $1,000 to $1,500.

Interview Finalists

The selection committee and agency representatives interview finalists and have them present their proposals. When choosing the partner artist, consider their past projects, intentions, applicable skills, and their community connections, as well as the merits of their proposals. Agency staff should trust their instincts: which artist seems like the person they could best collaborate with, even if the choice may appear to be unlikely?


In NYC, artist Rachel Barnard’s proposal to the Department of Probation to create whimsical pavilions in office waiting rooms where both clients and officers would be interviewed about the system might have seemed outlandish. But given her effective history in the criminal justice system, and her spirit of generosity, she was selected. Response from the agency was very positive.

Choosing an artist from within or outside the community

Depending on the nature of the issue or initiative, it may make sense to choose an artist who comes from within the stakeholder community. This artist is:

  • More likely to have locally relevant knowledge and existing relationships
  • More likely to commit if the initiative is long term

Pros for choosing this type of artist:

  • It affirms the value of the local, and keeps resources within the community
  • It builds a pipeline of artists who are committed to and skilled at working in civic contexts
  • The budget will not need to include travel and housing

However, an artist from outside the community:

  • Could provide a fresh perspective on local concerns, or barriers
  • Could energize local partners with new ways of thinking about and approaching issues
  • An artist with a national reputation may attract additional funding sources
  • Underlines that the issue is larger than local

Notifying the Artists

A member of the committee should call the finalists who were not selected and answer their questions about the process and the decision. Be constructive and honest.

If the process does not lead to an artist who inspires confidence and elicits a sense of connection with agency liaisons, the committee need not feel they must move forward.

“It’s super-critical that finalists meet with agency liaisons who will interact with them. We met with artists...if we didn’t find someone, we’d go back to the drawing board. It’s too important to settle for an artist who isn’t the right fit.” Diana Banning, Archives & Records Center, City of Portland, OR

Direct Invitation

In some circumstances, there is already a qualified, known artist who is well suited to the partnership. However, omitting a public call may short-change the process or leave out the input of the full range of collaborators. Choosing an artist without a public call comes about in various ways:

  • As a result of seeing the artist work well with other agencies.

The My Park, My Pool, My City project emerged out of the long-term relationship between Forklift Danceworks, the Parks Department, and the City of Austin.

  • A lead artist or intermediary identifies qualified artists for a project.

Joe Smoke of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs hired an artist to curate eight other artists to work in LA neighborhoods with which they were culturally aligned. This initiative came out of seeing communities respond best to artists who represented their culture and language.

  • Appointment by a mayor or by the commissioner of the arts and culture agency.

The mayor of Detroit chose the city’s Official Storyteller. Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs chose an artist he’d worked with previously to initiate the Public Artists in Residence program.

  • Solicitation of recommendations from others followed by a vetting process.
  • A funder may jumpstart a partnership by providing a grant for a particular agency and artist to work together.