Thursday, February 3, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions about UrbanArt

Hello Friends,

John Weeden here, hoping your 2011 is going well.

From time to time, when the dust settles for an all too rare moment of calm, I am able to turn my attention from the work of fine tuning the mechanics by which UrbanArt fulfills its mission to 'enhance the cultural vibrancy of our community through the development of public art,' to clarify questions about how we do what we do and why. Here are a few of the most frequently asked questions that I get as Executive Director.

1. How is UrbanArt funded?

As a non-profit organization, UrbanArt is funded from a variety of sources, both public and private. It receives administrative compensation from each client for whom it produces projects, such as the City of Memphis, Memphis City Schools, the Memphis Area Transit Authority, the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority, as well as various non-municipal clients in the private sector, such as Boyle Investment Group, and Rhodes College. However, we also must develop grants from various local and national private foundations every year to keep the lights on and the bills paid. A few of the granting organizations from which we've received support in the past are: ArtsMemphis, the Assisi Foundation, the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Hyde Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Finally, we also are fortunate to be the focus of targeted giving from private citizen donors who believe in our mission to enhance the cultural vibrancy of our community through the development of public art.

2. What branch of the City government are you under?

A common misconception is that we are a part of the City government. We are not, actually, but are instead a private and independent organization that manages a City-funded program called the 'Percent for Art' program for the City of Memphis as a sub-contractor. We 'commission' artists to create works of public art for the enhancement of our city's built environment, but are not a formal 'Commission' in the traditional sense. The 'Percent for Art' program is housed within the Division of Engineering. There are over 300 such 'Percent for Art' programs in cities across the United States today, the first having been founded in Philadelphia in 1959.

3. Why so many committees?

The short answer is because each project will be uniquely designed to reflect the character, culture, history, and aspirations of the residents of the surrounding neighborhood in which the final work of art is sited. So, each individual project needs its own individual committee to provide the motivating logic behind what the completed piece shall become when finished. Additionally, various sub-committees and ad-hoc temporary committees also review projects depending on what community partner, client, or project type you are proposing. If the thought of navigating a project idea through multiple committees makes your blood run cold, don't be too daunted. Only about 90% of our projects have to be vetted by any combination of 3 (at least) committees at some point during their lifespan from concept to completion. The other 10% are usually grant-funded and only require an idea be reviewed by that particular foundation's Grant Review Committee.

Basically, when you're in the public art business, your fundamental modus operandi is one of action by committee. You will not be the one choosing which projects to do, which artists to commission, or where to even install the projects. Your job will be to inform those individuals comprising those committees as to the rules of the road, provide them with the data and background information required per every project, then pray they choose something wonderful over something not. If your processes are engineered soundly, and administered consistently with a high level of organization and professionalism, then the chances are such committees will deliver likewise sound results. If your game is not tight, it will show. I am currently 2.5 years into a game-tightening process with our work, and it will continue for the foreseeable future while we continuously seek to refine the way we manage our projects.

Note: If a private sponsor wishes to retain our services to develop a project without committees, that is more than okay, too!

4. Why does it take so long to produce the projects?

See the description of committees above (ha!). No, but seriously, it requires us approximately 400 staff hours per project from start to finish. That's about 50 individual 8-hour days. Now, if we could tackle one project at a time and devote 50 straight days to it with all partners dropping everything else they were doing to give us their full attention for the duration of the process, you'd see things turned around in an astonishing pace. However, the reality is that everyone else is not solely devoted to your project's needs, and that the seemingly simple acts of scheduling, selecting, contracting, reviewing, approving, fabricating, installing, and celebrating each project are not simple at all! It is far more akin to the process of a tailor building a bespoke suit, customizing each pattern and panel to fit the individual who shall wind up wearing the finished garment, rather than going to Target and pulling a t-shirt off the rack. One size most definitely does not fit all. A good timetable is approximately 18 months. We are now aiming for 1 year from funding to dedication ceremony, but we're not there yet. In some cases, it can take a lot, lot longer (I say with steam emitting from my ears...).

5. Why don't you just write grants to fund public art projects?

Essentially, we would love to, but we are not able to currently devote the time it takes to appropriately research grants for which we are eligible, establish working relationships with such granting organizations, then develop and write grant proposals on an ongoing basis with the substance it truly requires to garner enough funding (reliably) to make it worth our time in diverting staff hours from managing our projects caseload. In short, we are so busy coordinating all the public art projects for our existing partners, that we are rarely able to develop new funding partners for other types of projects like new media works or biennials, etc. I would love to pursue expanded definitions of public art projects being produced by the likes of Art Angel UK, Creative Time, Figment, Site Santa Fe, Prospect New Orleans, and Digital Graffiti, but the reality is there is not enough financial support for such projects in Memphis, and not enough public clamor to see it that such support might be more forthcoming. That being said, we are constantly researching the possibilities.

6. How does the artist for each project get selected?

Each artist we commission to do a project is selected by an individual selection committee assembled for that specific project. See our Artist Handbook for details on our website under 'Artist Information' then 'Sample Documents'. To summarize, we issue a 'Request for Qualifications' (RFQ) for every project that describes what it's all about. Then the committees make the decisions. After an artist is selected we coordinate the design reviews, approvals, and fabrication processes.

7. Why don't you do more anti-blight type of design 'clean ups' on underpasses, etc.?

I think this could be a tremendous campaign with phenomenal impact upon the visual appearance of the city, as well as provide excellent opportunities for community building, but essentially we don't have the required permission to do it in a manner that is cost effective. Underpasses can be controlled by a variety of property owners, and obtaining the go ahead is incredibly time consuming. Years, brother, years. Since we are a bona fide organization that follows the rules, we do not advocate 'doing it yourself'. Meanwhile...these concrete whales continue to make our eyes sore through the town.

8. Why don't you create a project for ________ location?

Property ownership and permission has a lot to do with the site that we are able to produce projects on. If the owner doesn't want a project on a particular site they control, it is out of our hands unless we can convince them otherwise.

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