One of my resolutions this year is to make the time and effort to read more books. I miss reading beyond a computer screen and actually holding a “real” book with pages. As a result, I recently ordered The Artist’s Guide to Public Art by Lynn Basa. Not the eBook version, the paper one. Fascinated by the process of public art, it seemed like the perfect fit. I’m not just talking about putting art on the wall for the public to enjoy. This book goes into depth about the large-scale projects that dominate outside of conventional exhibition spaces.
The author Lynn Basa has an extensive resume. According to her website: “Lynn Basa is an artist living in Chicago. In addition to having completed numerous public art commissions, she is a painter. She teaches in the Sculpture department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is the author of The Artist’s Guide to Public Art: How to Find and Win Commissions.” After watching a few YouTube videos of Basa, she’s also a talented speaker and educator.
Basa’s book includes a wealth of knowledge including this quote from Jack Beckner of Public Art Review: “I tend to divide artists like doctors: There are specialists and general practitioners. Specialists are typically product makers, focusing on one thing and doing it expertly. GPs are into process and working laterally across many disciplines.” Working with graduate students, this is very true. An artist might start as a specialist (due to a vigorous graduate school program) but switch roles once out in the “real” world.
Love this statement from Basa: “For the sake of all working artists, however, I must insert a caveat: when you succumb to agency administrators who assume artists will work for little or nothing, it only perpetuates the practice of not paying artists a living wage and undercuts the rest of us who can’t afford to subsidize large bureaucracies with our personal income.” In the past, I asked a galley owner to split shipping costs 50/50 with me. The owner told me that she was a very small business and objected rudely to my request while donning designer duds (her outfit was more than my largest painting retail price). Politely, I informed her that my business was even smaller while donning my thrift store finds and she left my studio offended in an oversized shiny Mercedes SUV.
While some artists speak clearly, others speak a language that can’t even be decoded by the FBI. Basa quotes Lee Modica of the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs: “Artists may certainly speak to their own aesthetic philosophy and personal reasons for being in public art, but should do so in layman’s language rather than foggy, esoteric jargon.” The writing tip I tell my students often is to be clear, concise, and consistent.
The book goes into detail about copyright laws and the Visual Arts Rights Act of 1990 which gives additional protections for artists. The VARA includes authorship of artwork, power against modifications, and some discussion when an art piece is part of a building that could be destroyed. However, judges with different opinions have interpreted the law with various outcomes. Bottom line: artists need to figure out the fine details to avoid being taken advantage of.
Public art isn’t a new phenomenon. The pyramids in Egypt, Stonehenge in the United Kingdom, and the Lascaux Caves in France are just a few examples that represent the history of monumental sculptures. Today’s artists have the tools to fight, to be respected, and earn some type of “living wage” in public and beyond…