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.
In this section:
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:
Different people can initiate connections with a municipal agency:
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:
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:
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
She meets separately with agency leaders and staff so that they can be more candid, and asks them to articulate:
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:
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:
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.
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:
Pros for choosing this type of artist:
However, an artist from outside the community:
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
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:
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.
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.