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Commissioning Guidelines

There is no single methodology for commissioning art, whether for a gallery, home or the public realm. This guidance recognises that every opportunity is different, and recommends that strategies for commissioning art should be as unique and site-specific as the artworks they seek to generate. These guidelines have been developed out of tried and tested experience, and are intended to provide a useful checklist in the commissioning process.


Every permanent art commission or temporary intervention starts with an idea, a vision, a desire for art in the public realm, expressed by an individual – whether client, architect, artist, or curator.

This desire to commission needs to be led by people with vision, backed up wherever possible by sound policies for art in the public realm. A local authority public art strategy or plan, for example, will succeed if there are people designated internally and externally to carry it through. A vision also needs clear and achievable goals. Bringing the vision into reality involves considerable knowledge and skill: this is the point at which to seek professional guidance. Creativity is both resilient and fragile: the commissioning of art consequently requires tenacity and sensitivity in equal measure.

Developing a vision should be informed by:

  • Awareness of excellent precedents
  • Clear and achievable goals
  • Sound frameworks and policy
  • Professional expertise and advice
  • Local knowledge and support

‘Working with local authorities can be very easy. Both sides just need to explain their aims clearly and often you find that you are striving for the same thing.’ Joel Levack, curator

Role of the artist

Artists are both visionary and pragmatic. Given the opportunity they will bring an entirely unforeseen dimension to the project. However, the artist’s role is also that of a professional, working alongside other professionals and the community, and this status should be reflected in the brief, the contract and fees level.

The artist’s creativity is the central premise of any commission in the public realm – a truism but one surprisingly often neglected. Matching the artist’s creativity with the expectations of the client and the public is key.

  • Who determines the role of the artist?
  • How can the artist’s creativity best be supported?
  • Who is the artist’s main point of contact?
  • Is there a role for the artist on the design team, with a specific or an open-ended brief?
  • Is the artist’s role collaborative? Is there the scope for the artist to bring in other creative practitioners, such as writer, poet, choreographer, dancer, composer, musician?
  • Should, or could, the artist’s role involve working with stakeholders or members of the local community?
  • Is the artist answerable to the client or the public, or both?

‘Creating work for a public commission is never easy money. It takes a lot of time, as it should, and the time taken up by meetings, research and development is always underestimated.’ David Batchelor, artist

‘The outcome is a tribute to the contribution which artists of intellect and culture, as well as skill, can make to the environment. Although I continue to agree in "artists working freely in the public realm" I make the caveat that they must have an appropriate sensibility as well as talent.’ Larry Hansen, former Director, Southwalk Environment Trust

Role of the curator / art consultant / commissioning agency

The curator, art consultant or commissioning agency will be appointed for their visual arts expertise, experience and track record in managing comparable projects. The role is usually multi-faceted, combining curator, producer, creative consultant, visionary, catalyst, advocate, project manager, negotiator, funding adviser, researcher, writer, art historian, publicist, and archivist. As with the artist, the role of the curator or art consultant should be clearly defined in a contract, and reflected in their fees.

The role of the curator or art consultant might include:

  • Developing public art policies, plans, strategies
  • Researching the scope of the project
  • Researching artists and other creative collaborators
  • Making presentations to the client / commissioner and third parties
  • Writing artists’ briefs
  • Organising the selection process
  • Setting up a Steering Group
  • Advising on budgets
  • Drafting contracts
  • Exploring funding opportunities and liaising with funding partners
  • Securing statutory permissions and meeting statutory obligations (Health and Safety, Disability Discrimination Act, legal and insurance matters)
  • Liaising between artist, client, local authority, architect and design team
  • Organising public consultation and involvement
  • Monitoring design development and the production of the commission
  • Managing installation and de-installation
  • Organising exhibitions and presentations of work in progress
  • Organising, or contracting out, education or community projects
  • Commissioning documentation
  • Organising press and public relations
  • Writing and disseminating information and publicity
  • Organising evaluation

'The project can only be as good as the ambition of the negotiator or facilitator. Nobody will ever admit that they are not open minded and forward thinking, but it is the innovative foresight of the facilitator that will push for a project to be successful.' Kathrin Böhm, artist

The curator was crucial in ensuring cohesive interface between the artists and the client, and to devise the strategy to deliver the pieces’. Liam Bond, More London Development Ltd

The art plan

An Art Policy or Public Art Strategy often provides the context for commissioning public art, particularly for local authorities, health and transport authorities and development agencies. However it is a useful framework for any commissioner or commissioning organisation. An Art Policy may be a relatively simple statement outlining the commissioner’s commitment and vision for art in the public realm. This is typically found in a local authority’s Local Development Framework and Supplementary Planning Guidance.

An Art Plan or Public Art Strategy is usually the next stage. An Art Plan provides a basic framework for the commissioning of public art programme, and is tailored to a particular opportunity. A Public Art Strategy is usually a fuller document, presenting plans for a whole commissioning programme over several years, and responding to the objectives of an Art Policy.

The Art Plan or Public Art Strategy should cover the following areas:

  • Vision
  • Aims and objectives
  • Possible sites and locations
  • Contextual information – technical, legal, practical considerations
  • Setting up a Steering or Advisory Group
  • Selection methodology and criteria
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Community and education programme
  • Financial strategy
  • Management
  • Timetable
  • Contracts, copyright and ownership
  • Accessibility and equal opportunities
  • Maintenance plans and responsibilities
  • Information and publicity
  • Documentation and evaluation
  • Review period and decommissioning

'The public art feasibility study and Fourth Wall programme provided a great learning curve for us, and I think we really picked it up and ran with it, always looking at new and interesting ways to develop the fly tower. We know it’s a huge landmark and asset to us, and we know the films helped to make the National Theatre more visible.’ Maggie Whitlum, General Manager, National Theatre

'I see a lot of promising projects collapse because there is nobody with the confidence or the authority to say we’re going to do it. You need real advocates.' Michael Craig-Martin, artist

The artist’s brief

Developing a clear artist’s brief is essential. The brief features at two points in the commissioning process: at the start, to guide the artist’s response to the commission, and as a final edited document, to be appended to an artist’s Commission Contract. A brief should be clear but not too prescriptive.

Key elements of the brief are as follows:

  • Aims and objectives of the commission
  • Context – history of project, information about commissioner
  • Description of the site(s): environmental, geographical, social and cultural history; conditions; usage; physical or technical constraints
  • Artistic scope and anticipated role of artist
  • Selection method and criteria
  • Submission requirements (for competitions)
  • Anticipated level of local consultation or community engagement
  • Project management structure – team roles and responsibilities
  • Maintenance arrangements
  • Documentation requirements
  • Copyright and ownership - both designs and final artwork
  • Budget - what is and isn’t covered (eg fees, travel, expenses, professional advice, research and development costs, production)
  • Timeframe and phases (key dates e.g. anniversaries, launch dates)
  • Contact list - naming main point of contact

‘The commissioning culture has to change from “let’s commission some art” to “let’s work with some artists”. By commissioning artists you are asking for creative responses and ideas you hadn’t thought of. If your brief is very specific, then you really just need to hire a technician.’ Tracey McNulty, Group Manager Arts Programme and Development, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham

‘When artists are commissioned to respond to a particular local situation, there has to be the expectation that they will develop something outside of the brief which is just as important to the community.’ Katherine Clarke, Muf

‘It’s a completely fascinating process for an artist to be presented with a brief and to respond creatively to that.’ Laura Ford, artist

Selection procedures and criteria

How does the selection process work? Should it be by open or invited competition, competitive interview or direct invitation? What are the benefits and drawbacks of these methods? How do we ensure that emerging artists and different ethnicities are fairly considered? How can we commission work of national and international calibre, that also has local meaning and resonance?

The role of the panel needs to be clearly defined: it may be advisory only or it may be the decision-making body. A further technical panel might be formed to advise on practical or site-related issues.

Membership of selection panels might include: representative(s) of client or commissioning organisation; art curators or experts; artists; architects; local authority councillor or officer; community representative; other local stakeholders; representative of funder or other partner.

Selection criteria might include:

  • Quality of artist’s work to date - concept and realisation
  • Artist’s experience of, or interest in, working in the public realm
  • Artist’s interest in collaboration or ability to work as part of a team
  • Appropriateness of proposal to site and neighbourhood
  • Scope for community involvement or educational projects
  • Financial viability - value for money, achievable
  • Technical viability - longevity or resilience of materials
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Potential to help client or commissioner meet their aims and objectives - design, environment, community, regeneration, profile

‘The advisory panel were committed throughout, and while representing a range of viewpoints, were supportive and energised by the proposals. It was an exemplary decision-making process.’ Andrea Schlieker, curator

‘I didn't want to ask artists to spend a long time developing proposals that might not be realised, so I invited them to spend a day in the building talking to the commissioning group and discussing the project. I wanted to develop a strong working relationship between everyone from the start and instil a process of trust which gave the commissioners the confidence to allow the artists to work as freely as possible.’ Theresa Bergne, curator

‘You need somebody who is in charge at a high level, who commands and makes decisions, as there’s usually somebody on a committee that loses their nerve.’ Michael Craig-Martin, artist

Involving the public: consultation and participation

Who is the public for the commissioned artwork? What role could this public play in the commissioning process, if it is not a community-led initiative?

All new art commissions for the public realm should involve a process of public consultation. The responsibility for this aspect of the project should be clarified at the outset – is it the responsibility of the commissioner, the art consultant, the artist or an independent expert? Every situation will require a different form of consultation and different kind of ‘public’ – proposing art for new offices is very different from proposing art for public housing, a hospital or school.

Consultation can involve questionnaires, debate, workshops and public meetings, or it can become an art project in itself. It is an essential process for informing and involving anyone who might encounter or be affected by the new commission. But how can these ‘consultation exercises’ meaningfully feed into the Public Art Strategy, or Artist’s Brief? How much should local views influence or dictate the final work of art?

After an initial period of consultation, which takes place before the artist selection process, it is necessary to maintain links with local people and stakeholders. Their support and involvement in the project will be essential to generate ideas, develop local pride and ownership in the work of art, as well as an incentive for people to look after or value the work in the future.

Could local people have a role in selecting the artist e.g. representation on Selection Panel or Advisory Group? Could short-listed artists’ proposals be exhibited for public comment? Could local people participate in producing or making the work of art? Is there scope for a related education programme, such as workshops, talks and tours?

These are examples of ways local people or communities have been involved in public art commissions:

  • As the subject of the artist’s proposal
  • Inspiring the work of art by personal stories and histories
  • By hosting an artist residency or placement
  • Organising exhibitions of proposals or websites about the project
  • Participating in the Selection Panel
  • Attending public meetings or workshops
  • Documenting the commission through diaries, photography or video
  • Making the artwork under the artist’s direction (using local industries, skills and materials)
  • Taking responsibility for maintenance and aftercare
  • Celebrating the project with community events

‘My purpose as an artist-in-residence was to articulate the aspirations of the community, and their ideas for change. It took a while for people to understand why I was there, but once we began talking, the residents came up with ideas and got quite excited.’ Rayna Nadeem, artist

We knew there was an audience on our doorstep that we needed to reach. Laburnum Pilot seemed like an incredibly ambitious project and I couldn’t see how the artists would bring all these people together, but it was the ambition and drive that made it succeed, and that Amy and Ella were always there on the street talking to people.’ Kate Mcfarlane, curator, The Drawing Room

‘From the outset, the design team sought to respond to the trust’s high ambitions for the project and to put staff and patient consultation at the centre of the design process.’ Nigel Greenhill, Greenhill Jenner Architects

‘You need to make sure you always tell the neighbours of a site what you are doing there. It’s about thinking outside of your project and thinking about how it will affect the immediate community. That’s how you get people involved and build your direct audiences.’ Melanie Smith, Head of Production, Artangel


Funding for art in the public realm usually comes from a range of sources, often with a mix of funds from the public and private sector. It is important to establish at the outset what funds are available, where they are coming from, and to ask a few key questions: Is the budget a percentage of the construction costs? Are there conditions or time limits related to expenditure? Is the budget inflation-linked? Is it ‘ring-fenced’? Can the budget for artworks be augmented by infrastructure or construction budgets? What are possible sources of additional income, and who is the fundraiser?

Art projects in public spaces are notoriously costly and it is essential to set realistic budgets. What should the budget cover? How does it compare with similar scale artworks? Does the budget cover design development as well as realisation? Is there enough in the budget to cover initial design fees and artists’ expenses?

Budgets for art in the public realm should take into account:

Organisational costs

  • Writing an Art Plan or Public Art Strategy
  • Managing the competition and the commissioning process
  • Managing the consultation process
  • Arranging exhibitions or presentations
  • Running education and community programme
  • Publicity and public relations

Competition costs

  • Artists’ design fees and expenses
  • Selection panel fees and expenses
  • Exhibition of artists’ proposals
  • Transport and insurance of artists’ proposals

Commission costs

  • Artists’ (and any collaborator’s) fees and expenses
  • Materials and fabrication
  • Transport and installation (and de-installation if appropriate)
  • Building- or other sub-contractor’s costs
  • Insurance and permissions
  • Fees to other experts (lawyer, quantity surveyor, architect, landscape architect, engineer)
  • Consultation process
  • Education and community programme
  • Exhibitions of work in progress
  • Documentation and evaluation
  • Security
  • VAT if non-reclaimable
  • Contingency

Publicity, information and launch costs

  • Signage and information material for artwork in situ
  • Publicity and public relations
  • Catalogue or website
  • Inauguration or opening event

Long-term costs

  • Ongoing running costs or maintenance
  • Establishing a legacy trust or dowry for maintenance if ownership of artwork is to be transferred

‘I always think it’s better to commission an artist of the highest standard and then find the money to fund what are usually amazing results, rather than commission the best artist you can for an inadequate budget. It’s about pushing expectations of quality and striving to get the best.’ Tracey McNulty, Group Manager Arts Programme and Development, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham


It is important for a contract to be agreed and signed by artist and client or commissioner before any work takes place. There are two common forms of contract: Commissioned Design Contract and Commission Contract. Occasionally a Design Development Contract will also be necessary as an interim stage. There may also be an agreement or contract between the client and the curator or art consultant, and a Sub-Contractor’s Contract (when the artist is not fabricating the work her/himself).

An Artist’s Commission Contract will usually cover:

  • Names, definitions and contact details of commissioner or client and artist; architect and contractor or sub-contractor
  • Budget – artist’s fee and payment schedule
  • Ownership of preparatory designs and other material
  • Responsibilities of the artist
  • Responsibilities of the commissioner or client
  • Responsibilities of curator / art consultant
  • Warranty that the artwork will be original, with reference to other warranties or defects periods
  • Intellectual property, copyright, reproduction rights and moral rights
  • Site preparation, transport and installation
  • Formal acceptance of work
  • Delivery and installation of artwork – including timetable
  • Ownership and maintenance
  • Alteration, loss, damage, transfer of ownership, relocation, sale of artwork
  • Insurances and indemnities - of artist, artwork, other parties
  • Compliance – Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, Health and Safety Regulations, Disability Discrimination Act
  • Review period and decommissioning policy
  • Variations and terminations
  • Disputes and arbitration procedures

Appended to the Commission Contract will be:

  • Final version of the Artist’s Brief
  • Work schedules to be carried out by other parties and subject to separate agreements

'The lesson learnt is to be clear on what you want to achieve and get the timing of people’s involvement right; too early it can protract the process, if too late you have to rely on luck.' Liam Bond, More London Development Ltd

About the author

Vivien Lovell is the Director of Modus Operandi Art Consultants, having previously been founder-Director of Public Art Commissions Agency from 1987-1999. She has managed numerous national public art commissions, for clients including London Docklands Development Corporation and St John’s College, Oxford. Her publications include ‘Public: Art: Space’ (Merrell Holberton 1998), and ‘Phoenix: Architecture, Art, Regeneration’ (Black Dog Publishing 2004).

These guidelines are © Vivien Lovell and Arts Council England.

Uploaded to Public Art Online in October 2008.