Best Practice: Commissioning Art in Public Space

NAVA is inviting feedback from artists and the sector on draft new guidelines for commissioning art in public space.

Image: Reko Rennie, Remember Me, 2018. Commissioned by Yarra City Council in Melbourne. Installation view at the launch, photo by Nicole Cleary. Courtesy the artist and UAP.

In recent decades, numerous agencies and authorities have worked to identify and articulate best practices in commissioning and managing art in public space. A strong consensus has emerged about what good processes and practices look like, at least for some types of public art projects. However, we also know that these models are not fully visible to those that could implement them. They aren’t always well understood by artists, commissioning bodies, and other stakeholders, who don’t necessarily share the same terminology, models of art making or context. They can also be complex and rigid, difficult to implement and adapt to real life opportunities. A one-size-fits-all framework is both unrealistic and undesirable. 

This Best Practice draft can instead be understood as an educational resource to encourage good practice, with the aim of informing a broader conversation about national standards. It has been authored by Dr Marnie Badham, Dr Ruth Fazakerley and Fiona Hillary together with NAVA staff and researchers from the School of Art at RMIT University with specialist knowledge in public art. NAVA recognises the importance of leading this work in collaboration with the full range of interested parties, to ensure that government and commissioning bodies have the best frameworks to allow for trusting and supporting the vision of the artist. The draft draws heavily on previous versions of The Code, a series of stakeholder consultations (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and online), contributions from Terri Janke and Company and Arts Law, and published guidelines from local, state and international authorities. 

Art in public space brings artwork into the public realm and into the often contentious, shared realm of ethics, decision-making and public value. Without national standards covering the full scope of public art commissioning – from conception, to contracting, to maintenance and decommission – it can be challenging for artists and the institutions who commission them to navigate the complex negotiations that will support the best outcome for all parties. This Best Practice draft aims to account for common concerns in the commissioning of art in public space, many of which have been repeatedly reported to NAVA over recent years. These include reports of: 

  • onerous procurement processes for artists and commissioners;
  • exploitative Expressions of Interest (EOI) for public art commissions where artists must share intellectual property or provide labour in creation of designs without pay; 
  • lengthy and contradictory contracts issued after the work has started or completed; 
  • requirements for artists to work with designated third-party fabricators, installers or project managers who have little interest or expertise in art; 
  • changes of project direction or timeline without warning, compensation or opportunity for variance within the contract for the artist; and
  • confused approaches to the management and maintenance of commissioned and acquired artworks, ranging from ‘short-termism’ to lengthy lifetime agreements.

Local laws and legislation regarding public safety and procurement are varied across Australia; therefore, commissioners and artists must always refer to local authority when developing new projects. These draft guidelines present what is currently considered best practice when commissioning public art, focusing on three most common models of commissioning: direct, open-competition, and limited-competition commissioning. While not all the stages described here will be relevant for every commission, the information provides a guiding framework to help negotiations, and provide a rationale for and a context regarding timelines and allocation of responsibilities. The roles of artists, commissioners, selection panels, and project managers are outlined in order to identify, in advance of commissioning, the responsibilities of stakeholders in a project, and the range of required skills and expertise.

Your feedback is invited until 20 January 2019.