Posts Tagged ‘You Call That Art?!’

Art, Craft, Design, and Decoration: My Definition

These definitions and meanings often overlap, troche and not everyone is going to agree with my definitions. But for the sake of understanding my show and blogs, thumb I’ll offer some interpretations.

“Craft” is the easiest one in my opinion. It means how well the artwork is made and it implies virtuosity with techniques and materials. Something that is “beautifully crafted” usually means that the craftsman has a true mastery over the materials and the processes to create a given object.  But craft does not always mean beautiful. Something could be well-crafted, but in a rugged, rough-hewn way, or something could be crafted in an intentionally “ugly” way. The level and type of craft needs to match the concept or idea of the artwork. Or a work could simply be about the craft in and of itself; these works are crafts and not art, in my definitional spectrum.

"Seattle Tulip by Tom Wesselman

"Seattle Tulip" by Tom Wesselman

“Decoration” is easy too. Decoration implies something that is simply meant to please the eye…something pretty or nice to look at. Something that might give some pzazz to an object, building, or place. Decoration does not provoke or stimulate intellectual thinking…it is merely visual eye candy.  Unfortunately some public art is really decoration. The giant tulip sculpture in front of a bank in downtown Seattle is an example of corporate decoration (a status symbol) in my opinion. Wallpaper is decoration.

Chrysler Building, NYC

Chrysler Building in NYC, photo by ahisgett

“Design” starts to get complicated. Design often refers to the building arts such as architecture, furniture, landscape, bridges, etc. Part of the meaning implies a functional or structural component, but it also includes aesthetics, or visual comprehensiveness (or audio, or motion, or ….). Good design implies that care has been exercised to consider and integrate all aspects of a project, and often involves creating a form to solve a functional purpose as well as creating a meaning and appreciation for the object or structure. So buildings, bridges, benches, bus stops, etc can be thoughtfully planned, innovative, and carry a concept. Some of my favorite examples of good design are the Chrysler Building in New York City, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. I’m also a big fan of Calatrava bridges and Stickley furniture. And Porsches and Harleys.

Questions by Barbara Kruger

“Art” is the hardest of all to define. Suffice it to say that good art involves craft and design, plus it infuses the object or place with a thoughtful or provocative idea or concept. The idea could entail a human figure in a memorial context (one of the oldest and most prevalent forms of art…think of the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC, Lincoln seated in deep and troubled contemplation), or it could be an abstract idea created to capture an emotion or feeling (e.g.  Jackson Pollack paintings), or it could involve a socio-political idea where the artist is serving as a provocateur of morality

Barbar Kruger

or ethics or cultural constructs (such as Barbara Kruger’s gigantic billboards dealing with feminist issues). The spectrum of concepts is probably infinite. My own Fin Project : From Swords Into Plowshares deals with turning weapons and warships into Art, as another example.

The level of craft must be just right too, to match the concept…too “crafty” and it becomes about the technique more than the idea; not crafted enough and the concept is not portrayed effectively. The works, if in the public, must be structurally designed to withstand weather, traffic, earthquakes, and other interaction and abuse. One of my public art colleagues even had to design a cast bronze wall relief sculpture for a Boston subway station so that all the surfaces and planes drained downward….to prevent urine from the homeless transients in the subway station from collecting, creating a health hazard, and discoloring the patina! So the best public art is going to be well designed, well crafted and presents a rich and multi-layered concept.


11 2010

Who picks it?

How does public art get chosen for a particular place? Who is responsible for selecting it?

Meridian Archway

There are many variations on how public art gets selected, but within the government funded Percent for Art programs there is a typical process. Most of the time, it is the government arts commissions that are responsible for reviewing and selecting a given work for a project. These arts commissions exist at the federal, state, county and municipal levels. The arts commissions generally have a Public Art committee or department with a director and staff. The Public Art Committee will first learn of a new building project or a remodel of an existing government building, then will determine the art budget based on the construction costs (usually ½ – 1%). The staff will meet with the architects, planners, and future users of the construction and determine what kind of art is desired: sculpture, mural, floor design, functional art benches, themes, materials, etc. Also they will determine where the art might be placed within the project; i.e. exterior, interior, integrated into the floors or walls, hanging in the atrium, or all of the above.

A Call to Artists is then issued advertising the project and its parameters. This Call is advertised on arts commission websites, mailing lists, e-lists, and other relevant arts and design media. The Call solicits either artists’ qualifications and portfolios, or specific proposals for a selection committee review. The staff of the Public Art Program will put together a professional selection committee that will first review all of these portfolios or proposals, usually in a private session or two. Sometimes the selection committee will receive over 250 entries for a single project!

This selection committee is usually comprised of a half a dozen members, typically including the art commission staff member in charge of running the selection process (usually ex-officio); the architect of the project; the structural engineer; a professional artist from the community; a community member who will be a user of the new facility; a local elected or appointed official; the administrator of the facility; sometimes the facility’s caretaker; among other possibilities.

La Grande Vitesse by Calder

La Grande Vitesse by Calder photo by Meijer Gardens

This selection committee reviews the portfolios of previous artists’ works or initial proposals, and then usually selects 2-5 finalists, who are then paid a minimal design fee to create site-specific proposals. This entails models, drawings, material samples, structural drawings, slide show of previous works, etc. The artists are generally given about two months to design these specific proposals, which are then each delivered to the selection committee in about an hour long presentation. The committee will then pick one artist to proceed with the fabrication and installation of the work. A contract is drawn up between the artist and the art agency, and the artist is typically given a year to execute the work. The budget is usually a fixed fee, paid to the artist in installments, and the artist is responsible for all aspects of the construction and installation of the work within that given budget, including structural engineering approval, permitting, insurance, licensing, etc. Some budgets are small, under $5000, while some can be as much as $400,000 to $1million, depending on the scale and scope of the project, as well as the artist’s reputation.

The selection committee has a big responsibility. It must select a work that is not only exceptional artwork, but it must also reflect the interests of the community and the facility users. The best selection might become a signatory landmark and icon for a community, such as Calder’s La Grande Vitesse, Grand Rapids, MI, the image of which is seen on the mayor’s stationery and the city’s trucks. The worst will get torn out of its site, like Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York City, which may have been excellent contemporary sculpture, but failed as a successful work of public art.

Tilted Arc by Ricard Serra, photo by U.S.G.S.A.

Tilted Arc by Ricard Serra, photo by U.S.G.S.A.

Another way public art is selected occurs when a donor wishes to give a work to a public institution, like a public park for example. In that case, the proposed donation might be similarly reviewed by the Public Art Committee for appropriateness to the proposed site and community, and the quality of the artwork, but in addition, would likely be reviewed by the Parks Department, as well as the city’s Gift and Donations Committee. If it is a public park, it would also likely have to be approved by community groups and citizens’ organizations that surround and use the park.

All of these selection methods are written and available for public review in legislative documents that were approved by their respective agencies.

Watch a video promo of our upcoming program: You Call That Art?! Airing November 22, 2010 at 7:30 p.m. on KCTS-9, Seattle.


10 2010