Back in April, I received an email from the Arts & Science Council that grabbed my attention, stating that Los Angeles-based artist Nova Jiang had been selected to create public art for the planned Mecklenburg County Northeast Community Resource Center, which will serve county residents in northeast Charlotte. The commissioning budget, which includes the artist’s fee, design, engineering, fabrication and installation costs, was worth $451,350.
The reason this stopped me in my tracks was that the Charlotte arts scene, and especially the Arts & Science Council (ASC), have been embroiled in ongoing conversations for years now about efforts to not only diversify what art gets showcased in Charlotte, but the importance allocating funds to more local independent artists.
So why award a half-million-dollar contract to someone from across the country?
I did what any self-respecting millennial journalist would do in this situation: I took my question to Twitter rather than to the ASC itself. I did, however, still get a response from the organization.
“While it is important that public art in CharMeck provides residents & visitors with local, regional & national l perspectives, it is also important to provide opportunities for local artists to build their capacity in the public art space and their ability to compete for awards,” read a tweet from the official ASC account in response to my inquiry.
They followed with some data: As of April 30 when I made the tweet, of the 22 in-progress public art projects being managed by the ASC for the city and county, 10 were awarded to artists from Charlotte or the Carolinas. Budgets for those projects ranged from $30,000 to $204,000, with the latter being a large public artwork at 5 Points Public Plaza, which has been undergoing renovations and remodeling for years. Local artist Stacey Utley is overseeing the artistic vision for that installation in the Historic West End.
The Twitter interaction left me wanting to know more about how the ASC carries out its selection process, whether local artists are priorities in the process, and how local artists can get more involved. So I hopped on the phone with Todd Stewart, vice president of public art for ASC, to get a better grasp on it.
“There’s some merit to that issue, but having something like that in our community from a national artist is amazing,” he said of Nova Jiang’s upcoming installation. “What I’m trying to do now is figure out how ASC Public Art balances that, being a resource for our local talent while also sharing with our communities nationally innovative and exciting artists.”
How it works
Back in 2002-03, the city and county passed separate but similar public art ordinances that allocate 1% of the funding for capital improvement projects to go toward some type of artistic work on the site. For the county, that means facilities such as parks, rec centers, libraries, greenways and community resource centers. For the city, it’s typically police stations, fire stations, and streetscape projects such as the Blue Line stations. The ASC also manages public art projects at the airport.
Due to those ordinances, ASC Public Arts has a specific itemized budget for each fiscal year that gives an assigned amount for the project — 15% of which goes to ASC administrative costs and 85% for the artists’ fees and other costs associated with any given installation. For this reason, Stewart doesn’t expect the recent controversy around ASC and the city’s arts funding to effect his office’s work on public arts installations.
To find artists, ASC works with its respective client — the city, the county or the airport — to draft a Request for Qualifications, also known as a Request for Proposal. According to Stewart, the Public Arts Commission — a nine-member oversight board that consists of three members from the city, three from the county, and three from ASC — then creates an artist selection panel.
“We try to do a majority of arts and design professionals, local as much as we can, and then community representatives and stakeholders as well,” Stewart said of the artist selection panel. “Like if I’m doing a project in a specific neighborhood, I’m reaching out to Housing and Neighborhood Services with the city or various neighborhood associations to see if anyone is interested in public art and things happening in their area and would be agreeable to serving on these [panels].”
The panel holds two meetings, at the first of which they select three finalists, and at the second they recommend one of those finalists to the Public Arts Commission, which approves or disapproves. Upon approval, the artist then holds at least one community engagement meeting so as to receive feedback from local residents before finalizing their plan for the upcoming work.
Who gets picked
Stewart said he works behind the scenes to push more local artists to apply, but there are only so many artists who work in the public art realm.
Sharon Dowell, whose 6-foot Buddy Bear stands with arms up outside of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (CML) in Uptown, is one local artist who can take on projects of the size often needed for these installations, but there’s not a large pool of candidates beyond her and a few others.
“This seems like a huge field where anyone can do it, but nationally we tend to see the same artists applying for our opportunities,” Stewart said. “I’m always looking for new artists who possibly haven’t done this before, and how ASC can work with them to build their career up. Because public art is weird; it’s not exactly like studio art — of course it’s art and artists are super creative in finding myriad ways of working — but where public art differentiates is it’s almost like you’re an architect-slash-contractor.”
Earlier this month, it was announced that award-winning multidisciplinary artist Tiff Massey was awarded the contract to create public artwork at the new CML Main branch in Uptown.
“We have come to learn of the power of Tiff Massey’s work and its ability to bridge cultures and time frames, something the mission of a library also seeks, said Craig Dykers, founding partner and architect with Snøhetta, the design company behind the $100-million, 115,000-square-foot library project. “Tiff’s interdisciplinary explorations are often part of a dialogue between architecture and art. Each piece is a unique gateway, opening new perspectives for all that experience it.”
It’s unclear at this point whether Buddy Bear will be a casualty of the massive construction project.
While ASC has put out a few RFQs in the past that asked specifically for local or regional artists, it’s not common for the organization to do so.
“There’s no provision when it comes to our artist selection that it’s locals or North Carolinians only, or even prioritizing those, but from ASC’s point of view, with as little say as we have during the process, we do have a history of trying to advocate for our local artists, because we know that out of everyone who might get a commission, if it’s someone that I’ve known working in the community, I will be vouching for them.”
He said one of his goals in his new position, which he took in mid-April after seven years with the organization, will be to launch more educational programs for local artists to get involved if they’re interested in doing so.
“One of the issues that a lot of artists trying to break into public art see is, if you don’t have a project under your belt, or a certain budget that you’ve worked within before, panels can be somewhat hesitant to be like, ‘Oh yeah, give them a job,’” Stewart observed. “So something I’m working on is how we can create public arts workshops, how we can create some system of getting artists into the process so that they can not only compete locally and regionally for public art opportunities, but so they can go nationally and compete for other opportunities as well.”
Artists interested in applying for public art opportunities should keep an eye on ASC’s Calls to Artists page.
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