We have all ventured into public buildings, may they be town halls, libraries, hospitals, government buildings or similar facilities. I’ve noticed that in all of them, there is a wide array of different types of artworks, ranging from tile murals to textile pieces to lighting, and almost any other type of art you can think of. And they seem to be a part of the building, not just a painting hanging on a wall. I wondered why these artworks were always present, and looked to be integral elements of the buildings they occupy. Was it just coincidence, or was there some broader plan that allowed for the art to be present on such a widespread scale. It got me thinking about what Public Art is.

These may seem strange questions, but I have an inquiring mind, and subjects such as this interest me. A Google search on Public Art revealed an interesting, and certainly to me, understanding of what Public Art is, and why it exists. It varies from state to state, and even further by city to city. Basically, by federal mandate 1-2 % building budgets for the construction of new government, state, or city facilities must be allocated to support the arts.

But what is the process?

I had heard stained glass artisan Mark Levy mention public art in one of our conversations. His firm, Mark Levy Studio, is Los Angeles based, and has experience with the subject of Public Art, having been chosen for several projects, including the fire station mentioned below.

The process of what is deemed Public Art, and how it is implemented, is far more complex than I had imagined! Prior to my Google search, I just assumed that someone knew someone and voila, they donated money so art could enhance public spaces!

When I contacted Mark Levy to find out more about the program, from how it works to why it exists, it opened up a discussion that gave a glimpse into how the arts are supported through this federal program.

Technically, the process is heavy on protocol and paperwork, and long before a pencil is ever put to paper for the art itself, requires a complex and detailed process of interactions with all manner of government agencies.

Here is an artists rendering of the fire station.


It hardly seems to inspire. It smacks of some utilitarian design, can it be transformed into something else?

In the earliest stages, once a budget is established for construction, the process of RFQ’s and RFP’s’ is put into motion. These initial protocols’ establish what artists and media might be appropriate to the specific Public Art project.

I will let Mark Levy explain the three major pieces of the puzzle that follow similar guidelines from state to state in spirit, but do vary from project to project:

Round One….

RFQ…..Request for Qualifications.
It describes the building, what locations within it are being considered for artwork, the budget and what agency of organization it will serve, and asks for artists to submit the following:

-General info such as contact, medium, current resume
-Digital images of previous works (10-15)
-Costs, size and year of completion of the projects
-One page letter stating intent of how the artist sees their participation in the project

This initial stage provides the managing authority (In Los Angeles, this announcement is handled by The Dept. of Cultural Affairs; different cities and states have their respective agencies) a pre-qualified pool of artists for a given project. Actual construction may be years off (or the building may be built, and the Public Art is being added) but since the Public Art process is a complicated one not only in the art sense, but in its function and staged criteria, the search begins early. Cultural Affairs has a mailing list of artists who have requested to be included in RFQ’s. Both full-time professional artists making a living from their work, as well as emerging artists who have not yet had large commissions are encouraged to apply. Artists who are of a minority such as women, people of color and LGBT individuals are especially encouraged to apply. A RFQ may require that artists live in certain zip codes as they pertain to a specific council district. Other instances range from citywide to statewide to national RFQ’s.

A job walk is held (if the building is already constructed) where artists may ask questions; the architect is usually present. Blueprints and plans are made available so the artist can see which areas of a building are being specified for Public Art. Any inquiries by an artist are disseminated by Cultural Affairs to all RFQ participants so there is always a ‘level playing field’. These questions can pertain to any sort of topic, including if other areas might be considered beyond what is specified, architectural inquiries regarding what the architects intent or vision for the space may be, etc.

What I’ve found to be effective in the RFQ stage is conveying in every way possible how your work will benefit the project…the neighborhood businesses, the city agency, and the residents. What sets apart the various artists in this stage is not just the art proposed, but also their respective ability to tell a story of how their idea will create the “Public” in Public Art. The more detailed and specific the artwork can be described in how it will engage the area, and how on a day-to-day basis, enrich, represent and honor the residents, merchants and city employees, the better the chance that such understanding and inspiration will alert Cultural Affairs to the particular vision of the artist. It really is so much more than the art itself, or its intrinsic or apparent qualities….it is quite simply creating a narrative that conveys the extent of the art to engage its locale, the agency it represents……. far more so than the personal story the art may convey about the artist.

Round Two…..

RFP….Request for Proposals.

From the varying number of RFQ’s submitted (anywhere from a few hundred to thousands,) Cultural Affairs narrows down the pool of applicants to four artists (sometimes with exceptions), each working in a different medium and aesthetic. These finalists are asked to submit the following:

-A detailed narrative on what they will physically be creating, and how it will serve and represent the area and city agency.
-Drawings, renderings and elevations of how the art will be integrated into the building
-Samples of materials and techniques
-Requirements of their work, and if anything in the building or property needs to be modified to accept the artwork
-Maintenance requirement, energy usage, environmental impact, etc.

Real effort on the part of the artist comes into play with their engagement of the community and city entity the facility serves. This is wholly a self-motivated set of endeavors; I know some artists who spend just a few hours in their research, and others like myself who canvas and interview for weeks and weeks, hoping to garner the voice of the community and city entity in their research that will bring a certain je ne sais quoi to their project to set it apart from the other applicants. In my own experience, this manifests in immersing myself in the neighborhoods, and stopping to talk to local residents, merchants and any sort of local paper or newsletter. Interestingly, eating in local dining spots, from tablecloth to street vendors, can yield nuggets of understanding and insights from locals. People are more than happy to talk about their community, and offer perspective into its history, ethnic make-up, social happenings, etc. Quite surprisingly, there is never a shortage of input when you seek it out; residents are genuinely engaged in wanting the Public Artwork to reflect their community. A bit more challenging is getting in contact with the city entity the facility will serve; these departments do have public information officers, but only on a cursory level. I have found that on a one-on-one instance where I can talk to a police officer or fireman during their breaks, and ask them what they are about, and what they’d like their working/living environments to reflect and function as, is incredibly informative. Since they live/work in these spaces, their comments and suggestions are truly invaluable in a thorough understanding of how the day-to-day operations affect them. Of course there is the on-line research that can be invaluable to familiarize myself with public agencies, their hierarchies and histories, and yield vast amounts of info to enrich my approach and artwork.

The four finalists are individually called before a review board made up of city officials, the project architects, local board members and other arts professionals, in addition to an executive member of whatever city entity the project is being created for (Fire, Police, Library, etc.). It is in this presentation that I can bring the art to life, not only visually with samples so the board can not only see physical manifestations of my proposal, but also have a tactile and visceral interaction with my artwork. Again, the goal here is to engage them in such a fashion as to see what I see for the space, sense my enthusiasm and inspiration, and understand wholly how my proposal will best express all voices the project is for. This is where all of the time invested in research and exploration can make the difference in being selected, or not.

If Round One & Two were not daunting enough, Round Three is where everything is on the line………Now I need to be all business and all art simultaneously……Right and Left brain at full speed ahead.

Round Three………

+Acceptance….a contract is drafted, usually in excess of one hundred pages, covering everything (and then some) imaginable. There are the expected sections on finances, and how the contract funds are to be allocated, and dispersed on what dates, and what amounts, to any outside vendors or suppliers; payment schedules, documentation of work completed to secure funding and progress payments, etc. On the technical side, MSDS information of materials to be used. Then there are federal and state requirements for declarations pertaining to Child Care, Non-Discrimination, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. One section actually pertains to Slavery Disclosure Ordinances. Suffice to say no stone is left unturned in this ironclad, city-attorney drafted contract.

The remaining ongoing process is dealing with all city agencies involved, not only the entity the Public Art is for and The Dept. of Cultural Affairs, but city engineering, unions, architects, inspectors, etc. A large part of this phase is making presentations to neighborhood councils which are community based focus groups in a councilman’s’ district. These groups are composed of volunteer neighborhood residents who feel they are experienced and knowledgeable enough about their area of the city and the art world to weigh in on design, subject matter, appropriateness, etc. Since there are many opinions in this environment, expect comments of all varieties critiquing your own work.

It is clear to me that ‘public art’ is indeed public! It is meant to represent not only the agency it will serve, but also the community it will become a part of.

It also begs the question is this art by committee? I see this from two opposing sides. The artistic freedom on one, and the need for aesthetic pleasure for everyone on the other side. To many, art is purely subjective; in the Public Art realm, art takes on a whole new meaning, and must meet requirements and criteria that have as much to do with its creation as it does to popular opinion.

Let me share with you pictures of the end result.

From the outside we have.


To say that this is not eye catching would label me a liar. The view from inside is just as stunning. In fact in someways even more stunning.


I like public art, it is often stunning. Mark’s explanation of the mechanics has made me analyze some of my favorite ones, and yes I do see how they fit into the community and indeed how the community had helped shape them.

In part two of this series we will be looking at this one project in particular. A work in leaded, fused, laminated and stained glass by Mark Levy Studio.

It is an interesting story…. Yes, a building as utilitarian as a fire station contains a work of great artistry in leaded stained glass.

Simon Barrett

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