Public Art

Many of the issues relating to Public Art Commissioning have remained constant over at least the last two decades. These include requirements set out in EOIs, the selection process, the use of appropriate contracts, the insuring of public art work and practitioners, compliancy, the unauthorised use of practitioners’ intellectual property, moral rights and the disposal or relocation of art works.

We are currently consulting with the sector to inform a set of National Public Art Commissioning Guidelines.


Since the 1980s, there has been a growing interest in public art, presenting new and different opportunities for planners and commissioners. This has partly been driven by the development of ‘per cent for art’ policies and programs at many different levels of government, both in Australia and overseas. These policies use an allocation of construction costs, usually one to two per cent, to commission art works. They provide opportunities for practitioners to collaborate closely with other design professionals and, sometimes, fabricators and construction workers in the implementation of their artistic concepts. Some policies require or encourage developers and planners to involve practitioners in the process of design of new buildings or developments through this allocation.

What is Public Art?

Public art is art work located in public spaces and buildings other than galleries and museums. It is created by practitioners for outdoor spaces such as parks, foreshores, beaches, city squares, streets, courtyards and forecourts, or indoor spaces in publicly or privately-owned buildings such as schools, hospitals, churches, shopping centres, recreation centres, local government administration centres, office buildings, hotels, etc.

Public art can take many forms in many different materials. It can be free-standing work or integrated into the fabric of buildings or outdoor spaces, such as a sculpture or mural. Practitioners may also work individually or with other practitioners and manufacturers to create mosaic and ceramic floor or wall insets, stained glass windows, ornamental metal gates or grates, water fountains, light fittings or door handles, street furniture, topiary and landscaping, neon works, and multimedia installations. Performance works can also be executed in public space.

Public art can be permanent, lasting many years, or temporary, lasting a couple of hours, a few days or several months. It can be site-specific, drawing its meaning from and adding to the meaning of a particular site or place, or non site-specific, located in a public place primarily for display purposes.

Arts and culture can be intrinsically linked to a community’s identity, enhancing the environment while expressing a community’s culture and heritage.

Most local councils feel committed to making art an everyday experience for residents and visitors.

While the growing interest in public art presents new and different opportunities for artists, planners and commissioners, the types of issues relating to the commissioning of public art have remained constant over the past few decades.

The Issues


Art industry standards propose that artists can be asked for a CV, a short response to the brief, examples of previously completed commissions and other relevant work.

However, many calls for EOIs also ask for drawings of the proposed concept, a maquette, a description of the work, sometimes including installation details and a detailed project budget.

While it is understood this is generally inline with what may be required from an EOI in development and construction when dealing with large scale enterprises with substantial financial and human resources,

in the case of artists, asking for this kind of documentation is like asking for anything up to 100 hours of unpaid labour.


No two public art commissions are the same. Therefore, contracts between different projects and different parties are sometimes specifically tailored to the complexities involved in a particular project. Unfortunately this also means that sometimes contracts are ‘cut-and-pasted’ together from other contracts. Without legal representation, artists can sign contracts that are unreasonable or full of conflicting clauses.

Artists' Fees

After engineering, manufacturing, fabrication, installation, project managers, site-works companies, transport, insurances, artist's agent fees, cranes, traffic control, accommodation and travel expenses, administration fees and reports, and often ongoing maintenance schedules, artists fees are typically 10% of the project budget.

In the case of a $200,000 public art commission for example, the artist fee generally translates to asking the artist to work two years full time for $10,000/year.


Typically, the process for commissioning public art follows the same procurement process for anything that’s installed in the public space: a park-bench, a play-ground or even a toilet block. Depending on the scale of the project and size of the budget, an artist’s design may be put out to open or limited tender. Huge problems can arise that alter the finish and life of an artwork when fabrication is tendered out, rather than ensuring that the artist leads the process. 

The way in which some local governments deal with artists can be either uninformed or exploitative. These authorities are used to dealing with large scale enterprises which are supported by substantial financial and human resources. In the case of artists, they are often one person micro businesses or tiny companies which survive hand to mouth on the basis of the passion of an individual or small group of creative people.

The rationale often used by the offending local governments is that they want to give emerging artistic talent an opportunity to pitch. It is certainly more difficult to make a choice amongst new players without knowing in advance how they might respond to a brief. However, this can be managed much more fairly from the get-go in a two stage process where a small number of promising contenders are chosen from amongst the respondents to a first call for EOIs, and then paid a fee to go on to develop concept proposals. The payment should accord with arts industry best practice standard rates published in NAVA's Code of Practice for the Professional Australian Visual Arts, Craft and Design Sector.

In 2015, NAVA conducted a survey to collect feedback from artists about their experiences with public art commissions.

In 2017, Local Government NSW (LGNSW) in consultation with NAVA, surveyed its members and found that while public art was the strongest arts policy area in councils, policy varies significantly in motivation, relevance, currency, efficacy and therefore in format and content.

The information compiled from these surveys, together with numerous consultations with artists, consultants and varying authorities informed industry consultation meetings in late 2018 in Sydney and Melbourne.

The ultimate aim of these consultations are to responsibly inform our rewrite of the NAVA Code of Practice chapter on public art. NAVA recognises the importance of leading this work in collaboration with the full range of interested parties, ensuring that government and commissioning bodies have the best frameworks for trusting and supporting the vision of the artist. And that artists are better equipped to seek the right kind of help.

Our research partners at RMIT School of Art are currently working on the draft section on commissioning art in the public space for NAVA's revised Code of Practice and we're looking to circulate it for feedback in mid-June ahead of a final consultation in Adelaide on 26 June 2019. We then hope to release the new best practice guidelines in August sometime.