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Guidelines for Commissioning and Selecting Artists and Craftspeople

Quality design within the built and natural environment is an issue of growing importance, with new initiatives stemming from central and local government and via bodies like the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment (CABE), Regional Development Agencies, English Partnerships etc.Regeneration and public realm projects increasingly plan for public art and consider the role that culture should play.However, quality in the built environment is a commonly held objective, but one which, in practice, requires a clear understanding of the differing roles of designers and creative practitioners.Quality is not just about materials.It can also refer to the quality of thought and the diversity of creative solutions brought to bear on a development project.Artists should be integral to the project, rather than seen as an “add on” and additional expense.

The selection of an artist or craftsperson for a public art commission should be an intriguing and exciting task but it can also be fraught with difficulties. These notes are aimed at all potential commissioners and are intended to suggest ways of approaching this task, which result in the experience being beneficial and satisfactory for everyone. Ideally, allow the commission to be as open as possible with regard to site, material and content. Use the creative ability and knowledge of artists to inform the whole process, allowing the artist to 'lead' and give their thoughts on the brief. This approach will usually result in a far more cohesive and successful outcome.


Any public art commissioning should sit within a rationale and a corporate or agreed criteria for commissioning. Local authorities and health agencies may have ‘percent for art’ policies, tariff systems or adopted public art policies. Similarly developers and house builders may be required to, or take the initiative to include commissioning within their schemes and proposals. Public art is something very different from ‘Art outside the gallery’, and commissioning must reflect this. The example below is an extract from Canterbury City Council’s statement on public art commissioning.


The Council’s policy on public art commissioning has a number of objectives, which dovetail with strategic aims across the authority, in particular those laid out within the Cultural Strategy –

  • Boosting and Diversifying the local economy – by increasing opportunities for artists; by increasing the attraction of the District for cultural tourism
  • Developing Audiences and increasing participation – by bringing the work of artists into the public realm; by commissioning varying types of work which include participative projects
  • Improving health and well being (including Community Safety) – by commissioning artists to encourage healthy activities e.g. cycle tracks; by commissioning artists to work closely on making public spaces safer and more welcoming
  • Creating and supporting new opportunities for learning and development – by commissioning education and training programmes alongside public art commissions where possible
  • Enhancing, protecting and promoting public spaces – through the intervention of artists as members of design teams and contributors to the creation of the public realm

In addition to these strategic objectives, the public art commissioning policy has specific objectives of its own:

  • Quality – to achieve high quality in concept, execution and ongoing maintenance of all public art commissioning projects; create the opportunities for artists to work with other design disciplines to achieve the best results; encourage adventurous commissioning; attract the best artists locally, nationally and internationally
  • Recognition and Distinction – to achieve recognition as a leading local authority in public art commissioning
  • Partnerships – to encourage partnerships with regional and national arts providers and funders, environmental and transport bodies and developers

When embarking upon any sort of commission is it essential to identify clearly the aims of the commission and establish a clear strategy or commissioning plan. Unless the commissioner is experienced in this area, it is recommended that professional advice is sought at the earliest stage. By involving a public art consultant, agency or lead artist, the commissioner will benefit from specialist advice which can help identify the conceptual framework for the commissioning plan, methods of selection, implementation and the budget required. They can also assist with things like sources of funding and can undertake project management.

Be clear about the aims of the commission and what you hope to achieve by it. Consult widely with all those who will be affected by it. Establish the ownership of the site and whether planning permission will be needed. All permissions and restrictions must be known and be made clear to the artists. Consider scale, materials suitable for the site, special requirements and what advance preparation the site will require. Will the commission be permanent or temporary? Will the budget for the commission cover installation costs, related groundwork, landscaping or lighting requirements? A successful commission can take a long time to complete and allowing a realistic timescale for consultation and for the artist to develop the work is essential. There are various publications which provide good advice on the whole process - refer to Bibliography for further information.

Clearly establish the role of the artists. Are artists to be part of a design team, to undertake a residency with a local school, to create work on or off-site etc? Adopt a flexible approach to the methods which can be employed to undertake the commission.

Identify the selection process to be used and who will participate in the process. It is essential that all those who will be in a position to say 'yes' to the final design are involved from the outset - from the drawing up of the brief through to the final selection. This group, the steering or management group, should represent users, community, as well as the commissioner and funders. It should be a manageable group, which has the ability to remain involved throughout the whole process. Often it is also beneficial to have an independent opinion in the form of a professional public art consultant and/or artist.

Take professional advice. Most people/organisations commissioning for the first or second time would be advised to take professional advice. It is often the case that the commissioner's original concept can be enhanced through sharing ideas with an agency/agent. Public Art South West produces two information sheets Commissioning Agencies, Public Art Consultants and Lead Artists and The Healthcare Sector, which identify potential contacts.

Establish the budget and make sure it is confirmed. If the budget is not identified or if there is some doubt about the security of the budget, always let the potential candidates know. However, do not embark on a project when there are no funds available to pay for the initial design fees and expenses of artists. The budget should include:

  • advertising and selection costs
  • artist's design fees (set at an equitable level with other professionals)
  • exhibition costs (if client wishes to exhibit designs and maquettes for comment or information)
  • artist's commission fee - this should be equivalent to other design professionals involved (clarify the artist's tax status). For further details contact PASW and also refer to a-n - Artists' Fees and Payments


  • materials and fabrication costs - the artist's fee and materials budget does not necessarily have to be specified by the client; it can be left to the artist to identify their fee and material costs within the whole budget
  • travelling and workshop expenses
  • insurance/Public Liability costs
  • installation (site preparation, running electricity, water to site, landscaping, extra labour etc.)
  • transport and security costs
  • professional fees and legal costs
  • consultation costs
  • publicity, documentation and inauguration costs
  • maintenance costs
  • VAT
  • contingency
  • evaluation costs.
  • documentation

Managing the Commissioning Process

It is essential that the commission is overseen and monitored by a steering or management group. This group could comprise members representing the community, the commissioner, funders, arts expertise in the form of an independent public art consultant and/or artist and other interested parties. The group should include the person responsible for the implementation of the commissioning process, who is the link person for the artist. Often, this role is undertaken by a public art consultant or lead artist. This role is a pivotal one in that it ensures good communication between all parties and ensures the project runs smoothly, to budget and on schedule. It is also particularly beneficial for artists who do not have much experience of the commissioning process and who therefore need guidance from a specialist source.

Developing the Brief

The brief should include the following:

  • aims and objectives of the commission
  • context, history of project, maps, drawings, special requirements etc.
  • description of artist's role
  • details of the project team and their roles and responsibilities (including specialist project management for the commission)
  • description of site and conditions (take into account accessibility, impact, safety and financial implications and, where possible, involve the artist in selecting the site)
  • degree of community participation, who will manage the process etc
  • timetable and phasing, including deadline, short-listing and interview date (if applicable)
  • budget
  • planning permissions required
  • description of and criteria for selection process
  • maintenance and durability requirement and who will be responsible for maintenance
  • artist's copyright position and clarification of ownership of work
  • documentation required or planned
  • any review period planned
  • decommissioning policy.

Research and Selection Methods

The way in which artists are identified depends on the nature and scope of the commission.

To find a suitable artist:

  • consult registers and online resources such as Axis (refer to Artists' Directories)
  • work with a public art consultant
  • talk to the Arts Council's regional specialist officer or designated agency and gallery director or public art organisations, all of whom will be able to suggest artists and places to see
  • Research case studies and websites of other initiatives and developments which match your aspirations
  • consult catalogues, books, art magazines
  • go and see exhibitions, galleries, sculpture parks and trails
  • visit artists' studios

Once information has been compiled, make a long list of artists/craftspeople whose work is interesting and appropriate. Keep an open mind - artists are versatile and usually prefer to be in a pro-active situation, where they can offer ideas on the site, use of materials and perhaps move into an area of work that is new to their practice. It may be possible to borrow slides from the artists to take to committee meetings or community groups for local consultation.

There are three main ways of selecting an artist:

  • an open competition - inviting artists/craftspeople to submit applications
  • a limited competition - compiling a selected short list from which a limited number of artists can be invited to work up proposals
  • a direct invitation to an artist to propose work for a site, or participate in the design process, or act as lead artist.

Open competition: this can be international, national or regional. It can be advertised in the national press, the art press and through distributing information via mailing lists, newsletters, galleries, artists-led spaces, studio groups etc. Artists would be invited to make contact, be sent the brief, including details of the site, context, proposed themes for consideration (if applicable), budget etc. They should be asked to submit a statement of interest with a CV, up to 10 images (slides, CD ROM) and a slide list, by a defined closing date. Asking for design ideas at this stage is not appropriate. A shortlist would then be drawn up and the selected artists asked to submit detailed proposals, including maquettes, and a budget, for an agreed fee, by a set date or invited to attend an interview. The final decision would be made on the strength of these submissions. The artist should retain their original maquettes/drawings and all of the shortlisted artists receive a fee and expenses, irrespective of whether they are awarded the commission. It is usual for copyright of the designs to rest with the artist unless negotiated separately. Refer to the information sheet Works of Joint Authorship: Copyright Guidance.

The advantages of this approach is that it is good publicity for the commissioner and sponsor, gives the project a high profile, brings forward artists you would not otherwise have known about, provides opportunities to unknown or younger artists and is consistent with good equal opportunities practices. The disadvantages are that it can be time-consuming, an expensive and heavily administrative process and does not always attract a suitable artist.

Limited competition: this method requires careful thought about the kind of work and artist required, so detailed research is necessary for the compilation of the long list. From this list between three and five artists would be asked to submit information and go through the process as detailed above. The advantages are that, if time is a factor, this way ensures the commission gets underway relatively quickly; less established artists can compete with more experienced ones; a range of solutions can be explored without entering into a full commitment. Disadvantages are that some artists are unwilling to be put into a competitive situation.

Direct invitation: an artist is directly approached and asked to consider the site/brief. The advantages are that established international artists prefer to operate in this way, there are none of the additional costs involved in open competition or shortlist fees and a closer relationship or 'matching' of artists to opportunity can be carried out. The disadvantages are the need to justify this approach in terms of equality of opportunity (and maybe against competitive tendering rules for local authorities); an opportunity is missed with regard to seeing a variety of work; timescales may have to be lengthened to accommodate the artist's existing commitments.

Artists on design teams: the process of commissioning an artist to work as a member of a design team is as above. However, the artist is being sought for their critical creative thinking within a design or masterplanning team discipline. In this circumstance although the methods for recruitment would still be followed, the artist would not be expected to produce design proposals or drawings/maquettes. They may be asked to present ideas or an approach based on previous work.

Advertising the commission: Arts Council England offer a service called ‘arts jobs’: this is a free online service which details current vacancies and opportunities in the arts community. The website is www.artsjobs.org.uk. Another principal publication where commissions are advertised is a-n magazine, published monthly, and on their website. Visit www.a-n.co.uk for details. Axis also offer an opportunities section. Their website is www.axisweb.org. Local papers should also be used and, if the budget allows, a small advertisement in the Guardian (www.jobsunlimited.co.uk). Make use of studio networks, artist-run organisations and membership organisations, all of whom would be able to circulate information.

Public Art Online provides free listings for commissions within the What's new Section.

The Consultation Process

Look at the opportunities to involve the community in consultation; what are the aims behind involving the community? Are they to:

  • involve them directly in the concept and/or design and making of work
  • create educational workshops linked to the commission?
  • involve them in identifying the artist and/or sites, informing the brief through sourcing ideas for work?
  • give opinions on various designs and be involved in the final decision making process?
  • inform of them of the process and gain informal feedback?

Some form of consultation is always necessary. A commission should not exist as an isolated process, which then suddenly appears on site. The location itself will very much define the sort of consultation required - work within a housing scheme will require different consultation compared to work being created for new business premises or a new theatre or community hall. Consultation can:

  • result in wider sense of ownership and understanding of the project
  • create a sense of pride and raise awareness/appreciation of the locality
  • provide opportunities to develop and utilise local skills
  • provide a means by which the community can have control over its environment

The above are by no means definitive lists. They are simply intended to demonstrate the importance of establishing a consultation process. For detailed information, refer to Consultation in Public Art Practice.


Contracts should always be clearly agreed and issued prior to any work taking place. It is essential that the client and artist have had an opportunity to discuss and agree a mutually acceptable contract. Detailed information on the legal and practical issues involved in the successful management of public art commissions is provided in Public Art Commissions: Good Practice and Works of Joint Authorship: Copyright Guidance, both by Henry Lydiate. Briefly, a contract should include the following:

  • overall timetable stages
  • definition of involved parties, names and addresses
  • details of the commission, the design stages and the artist's brief
  • the responsibilities of the commissioner/design team (e.g. site preparation, planning consents and approvals)
  • delivery of work, installation and insurance requirements including professional indemnity
  • warranties and repairs
  • fees and methods of payment
  • ownership
  • risk of loss or damage
  • maintenance agreement including health and safety surveys
  • review and decommissioning policy
  • copyright, reproduction rights, credits and moral rights
  • relocation
  • termination of agreement
  • disputes procedure
  • role of consultant (if applicable)
  • schedule of work
  • confirmation of budget (construction budget if applicable) and budget holder (if not the artist).

Documentation and Evaluation

It is important to build in some sort of documentation and evaluation process. This not only ensures that a detailed record of the project is available for future reference; it also helps promote the project wider afield. Also by comparing the actual chain of events with the planned, it will be easier to undertake an evaluation of the project. By carrying out a full evaluation, the commissioner can demonstrate to all parties involved, including funding partners, the success of the project, learn from the process and plan confidently for future projects.


It is also important to plan some form of 'unveiling' or inauguration. This recognises all the hard work which has gone into the project and celebrates what has been achieved. It also provides an opportunity to publicise the project and gain, through media publicity, some recognition and feedback on the scheme.

Insurance, Maintenance and Decommissioning

It is important to set up mechanisms to cover insurance and maintenance of the completed commission at the outset and to obtain the resources and agreement of those who will be involved in carrying out this work, especially as this aspect can be time consuming. Decommissioing should be considered at the outset of the process and a factor to be considered when determining the expected or proposed lifespan of the commissioned work reflected, which is then also reflected in the brief, commissioning contract and the selection criteria. Further advice on decommissioning can be found in a paper by Hazel Colquhoun Be Prepared. Decommissioning public art and Canterbury City Council's Decommissioning Public Art: A Policy for East Kent Local Authorities.

For further information, e-mail: [email protected]

© Public Art South West

July 2008