art commission
Synesthesia by Epigram Studio, an outdoor installation for the 2018 Baltimore Light City Festival
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How to Get Private and Public Art Commissions

Hotels, parks, and revitalizing downtowns are using private and public art commissions to attract visitors with unique artistic experiences. Institutions like libraries are creating custom lobby murals.  Transportation venues are installing temporary exhibitions to create visual interest and drive local and regional economic growth. With public agencies and private developers setting aside hefty budgets for art commissions ranging from $2,000 to sometimes well over $1M, how can artists get in on the action?

If anyone knows the ins and outs of private and public art commissions, it’s CODAworx,  a global online community that showcases design projects featuring commissioned artwork in interior and architectural spaces. The also host the CODAsummit and CODAwards. As a website, CODAworx has been around for 5 years, but Founder and CEO Toni Sikes has been in the commissioned art world for over 30. She first connected artists with firms in the U.S. through her biannual catalog of artists called The Guild Sourcebook of Art. Today, the website is home to RFP Listings, the world’s largest listing of private and public art commission projects. Director of Online Marketing and Partnerships, Nick Anderson explains how artists can find more potential projects, set themselves up for success and land big gigs through these types of artist commissions.   

Who qualifies for big private and public art commissions?

private art commission
“Green Ribbon” by Jennifer Espenscheid, Clock Shadow Building, Milwaukee, WI

The most successful artists, designers and creators are those who have done a commission in the past. It doesn’t have to be huge and it could have been for a private client, but ideally, you’ve created something before with a client’s needs in mind. Commissioners (the entities that fund these projects) like to see that you can collaborate, manage a process, and create artwork that results in a memorable and destination-worthy art experience. Like any artwork or artistic creation, you must have exceptional professional-quality images that show both the commissioned project’s process and final product. References from clients, awards and press articles speak to your expertise and the positive impact of the commissioned work on the public.

The images here, for example, convey the purpose, context and visual appeal of the project. Showing people in your photographs conveys human interaction and shows the scale of the work. In Stationary Figures by William Wegman, located at the 23rd Street Subway Station in NYC, the photograph makes the work come alive and you can almost hear the train coming in as people go about their commute. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Arts & Design, a program that brings public art to the New York City Subway and posts open calls for projects, there are 11 panels depicting the artist’s famous subject – Weimaraners. The project was designed to grace the walls of the 2018 re-opening of 23rd Street station. As with many private and public art commissions, many people are involved in bringing the work into reality.   Wegman worked with a German mosaic fabricator that interpreted his photographs into glass tiles and TimeOut New York rated the project as one of the top NYC subway installations in 2019. As with Wegman’s project, many private and public art commissions are created to celebrate, memorialize or commemorate an important event or milestone.

Tip: Your past work shows that you can deliver and collaborate with clients. Show potential commissioners images of your work in the space that they occupy. References from clients, awards and press articles speak to the reaction and impact of your commissioned work on the public.

private art commission
Public Art Commission “Stationary Figures” by William Wegman, 23rd Street Subway Station, NY

What’s the difference between an RFP and RFQ?

Actually, a lot of people in the art world don’t know the difference—especially if they’ve done only private commissions. But, for entities like an architecture firm, city, state, or public municipality, there are two different acronyms you need to know: RFQ: Request for Qualifications and RFP: Request for Proposals.

The process for an art commission usually starts with an RFQ, where the artist is applying to a project with a portfolio of what they’ve done and a letter of interest stating why they are a fit. An artist’s time is valuable, so this shouldn’t take a tremendous effort, but it should still show that you’re interested and are qualified to do the job. At this stage, there could be over 100 people applying, so it’s not the time to craft a full proposal. You just want to show that you’ve got what it takes to submit a proposal and your previous work and experience are intriguing enough that the commissioners want to know more.

Then, project stakeholders review the applications, choose 3-5 finalists, and ask finalists for full proposals. Sometimes, they pay the finalists an honorarium (aka a stipend or design fee) for developing the proposal. What the artist delivers would be a visual presentation, sketches, renderings, maquettes, etc. – whatever it takes to wow the selection committee.

Tip: Stand out among applicants. Start with the RFQs that inspire you most and share that enthusiasm in the Letter of Interest portion of the application.

How do artists find projects they want to apply to?

It can be daunting to find, pitch, and land a big public or private art commission. Where should an artist start?  You can start with what matters to you most. Using CODAworx RFP listings, try sorting by location, budget, and deadline. On their listings, you’ll see both RFPs and RFQs, so check if you want you to start with a proposal right way. If you’re signed up as a free member, you can save proposals to your account to look at later when you have the time to apply. It’s a resource for all artists, designers, and creative teams interested in art commissions.

Really investigate private and public art commission listings to make sure they’re credible and provide value to you. Credible opportunities have substantial budgets behind them and include compensation for the artist. CODAworx doesn’t list opportunities where artists have to pay a fee to exhibit like art fairs or trade shows. They also list over 15 new art commissions per week. Last year they shared over 700 unique projects internationally that paid artists over $100M! You can also check out Americans for the Arts, which list public art opportunities.

Tip: Before you apply to a project, make sure a private or public art commission is credible. 

art commission
J. Kenneth Leap started “Imagine Runnemede” to help revitalize his hometown in NJ

Even if you’ve never done one before, you can establish yourself as someone who does public or private art commissions. Ask local officials, businesses, hospitals, community centers and long-term care facilities if they have a beautification budget. Or, come up with a great idea and start a crowdfunding campaign. A popular project is to create a mural at a local school or library with help from students, teachers and the public. It can be a great community fundraiser. You’ll need to get permission and possibly permits, but that is common with these types of projects. Best of all, you’ll get the experience you need to apply to larger art commission projects..

Architectural stained glass artist J. Kenneth Leap, highly experienced at private and public art commissions, started Reimagine Runnemede, a self-initiated project formed to revitalize his small town in Southern New Jersey through the arts. Ken shared, “I helped form a non-partisan, citizen-based network mobilized to promote the revitalization of our community through the arts.” He hopes to inspire residents, businesses and elected officials through new solutions that use arts-based community development.  Ken, always seeking new challenges to bring his ideas to life, created his own purposeful public art commission that will have a real impact on the community.

Tip: Be proactive and create your own opportunity to get a private or public art commission. 

Take Aways

  1. Check out CODAworx, Americans for the Arts and other listings for current requests for proposals and qualifications for private and public art commissions.
  2. The most successful artists, designers and creators are those who have done a commission in the past.
  3. Investigate any listing to make sure it’s credible and there is no fee to apply.
  4. If you’ve never done an art commission before, take high quality photographs of your work in open spaces to apply for open calls or start a local art project to get experience.

About the author

Jenifer Simon

Jenifer directs Business and Content Development for Artrepreneur. With a background in studio art, arts administration, training and development, she's been helping artists succeed in their careers for 18 years.

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