Thursday, March 22, 2012

Navigating the Public Art Process

This exterior panel was made to commemorate the new Food Bank, which is supplied in part by the organic garden at the Senior Center.  They rock.
Having completed a handful of very modest public art projects, the largest being a 4' x 2.5' mosaic panel for the Federal Way Senior Center, I didn't think this project could be much more complicated.  The budget is very, very small, barely more than I've been allotted for much smaller projects.  But, it is more formal and complicated.

For one, this is permanent.  It is going directly onto concrete forms, and is designed to last a lifetime.  Next, I have to do the work on site.  In the past, I've done most of the work in my studio, then had it installed, usually by -or in collaboration with- a contractor.  And finally, it involves community participation, which not only brings up liability issues, it also ensures unpredictability.  I don't know what the materials will be.  I don't know who will be helping me.  Anything can happen, and probably will.

So far, Ken, the owner of FurnitureWorks has graciously agreed to accept and hold the materials as they come in.  He is located right downtown, easy for everyone to get to, and it will be a short trip when the time comes to move it all to the project site.  So that is awesome.

I had to purchase a City of Olympia business license, which is technically required every time an artist operates business within the city limits.  I do exhibits and events several times per year in Olympia, but it has always been too painful to pay the $95 for the license, considering how small my annual budget is.  This time, there is no getting around it.  So, I'm legal now, and $95 poorer.

Next, I am required to carry liability insurance to do this project.  So far, one agent has estimated that it will cost me about $500.  This is far more than I had expected, and I'm still researching my options.  Some of my friends have business insurance for closer to $300/year, but I don't know if that covers general liability in a situation like this.  While researching, I am realizing that I really should carry insurance for times when I'm delivering artwork, installing the mosaic on scaffolding or mechanical lifts, and teaching workshops.  I'm a little bit embarrassed that I don't have this in place, but, in my defense, I mainly manufacture the work in my studio or work as a contracted employee of the contractor in charge.  Besides, my business is so sporadic, this (and the stair risers I'm currently finishing) could easily be the only installation I do this year.  And next, for that matter.  So, it's a huge investment when I earn so little.  Most of my budget goes right back into the business, and I have had to claim a loss almost every year.

All of this, and I haven't even seen the contract yet.  I was told to send an invoice for an initial payment so that I can start purchasing tools and materials, so I concocted my usual written invoice in the word processor program that came with my computer.  Right away, I was asked to submit an actual "Invoice" with my UBI number and correct format.  That's a bit embarrassing.  I googled how to create a real invoice, and found this site:  I was able to make a nice, professional invoice and email it directly to my contact.  You can print, save, download, whatever.  So easy, and FREE. 

I have been applying for public art projects for years, frustrated that I never have the required experience to land anything that could make my business solvent.  This project seems like a nice introduction to a real public art project, with contracts and coordination with several City departments.  I am getting a lot of enthusiastic support from every direction, and I know that, while I've never done something quite like this before, it is well within my ability.  With luck, this will be a foot in the door to some bigger projects in the future.

P.S. Over the next couple of weeks, I get to finally meet and learn from Laurel True, one of my heroes in the world of mosaic.  For many years, she has been helping communities to rebuild and recover with mosaic.  Check out her work:


  1. Sounds like you're navigating the world of doing public art quite well! This project will teach you so much, and like you said, open the door for bigger projects down the road.

    Looking forward to following the progress!