Thursday, July 31, 2008

Public Art: Why Bother?

I have a friend finishing up his creative writing PhD in Scotland. Often I’ll ask him how things have been going and he’ll respond with a sigh and tell me it’s been a tough day or a tough week. I usually take the bait and ask what has happened only to have him half jokingly explain that he’s had a hard day of reading and coffee drinking and now he’s just worn out. We joke about this because we’ve realized this is the impression people sometimes have of the life of the artist.

This false impression can lead to some serious problems for the artist. Of course no one wants to hear you complain about what they perceive as your luxurious life of thinking and creating, and if that’s what they really think then I can’t blame them. But this misunderstanding may also lead them to expect you to donate your artwork or your time and expertise to some sort of project they’ve got an idea for. Since they don’t think you really do anything all day they do not see this as an imposition at all. It’s not even that unreasonable for them to think that in some way you owe this to them or your other viewers because they’ve said nice things about you or maybe they came to a show once. If they’ve gone to the trouble of showing an interest in your work or abilities, don’t you owe them something?

Often these groups or organizations are dealing with a very limited budget or perhaps some government allotted funding on which they’ll need to keep a close watch. If you could reduce your asking price a little or a lot it would help them stay in the black for the fiscal year. Perhaps if you could find ways to trim your expenses and cut a few corners they might just have enough left in the budget for an extra addition to the permanent collection or to increase the Best in Show Award for their upcoming juried show. Your prices are a little bloated anyway, right? Surely you have built in some room for discounts.

I would not attempt to speak for anyone other than myself on this issue. Surely there are artists around who over-price their work. In the world of public sculpture the high price tags always seem to take even me by surprise. It is sometimes tempting to look at a public sculpture and wonder why anyone would pay in excess of $10,000 for that….thing. It is equally tempting to think that the artist must have made out like a bandit on that deal. The truth, however, is that the artist probably didn’t profit more than a few bucks and in most cases he or she would be lucky if that “profit” covered all their expenses.

The problem here is the unseen. People see a public sculpture made of steel and they assume the price tag represents the object or installation (…$10,000 for that?). The fact is the visible object or installation may only represent a fraction of that price tag. So where are these other expenses? What could possibly cost so much? While this is certainly not a complete listing, it may help to give an idea of the hidden expenses involved in public sculpture. Let’s start with the things a steel sculptor must purchase before making anything: You’ll need at least one welding machine, at least one power cut off saw, one plasma cutting torch, oxy-acetylene torch, air compressor, painting equipment, a large assortment of general hand tools for maintenance of those machines, several dollies, carts and lifting devices (overhead crane lift, fork lift), spools of welding wire/welding rods, other welding accessories including hood, heat resistant gloves, gas valves, regulators, and replacement parts. You’ll have trouble starting a sculpture without first purchasing steel and my supplier has almost quadrupled their prices in the last five years. And of course you’ll need a place to put and use all these things which means you buy or build a building equipped to house this type of machinery or you rent one by the month. Which lead me to the monthly fees the public artist must pay EVERY month regardless of whether or not any work is being produced: Count on a high power bill for the hungry machines and lights, bottle rental for at least 4 bottles of compressed gas (different mixtures for each welding machine and torch), storage fees for each finished or old sculpture, gas for furnace if you want to be able to work in the winter, and in regular use, you’ll need to replace all the tips, covers, and accessories on the welding machines and torches every few weeks, and when you very close to finishing a sculpture, expect to run out of welding wire or rods or gas and have to replace it in a rush. You’ll need a few gallons of primer, paint, probably some hardener, and thinner. And keep in mind; these are just some of the expenses involved in actual production of the work. This does not include travel, planning, crating, packing, transporting the work, installing, un-installing, and completely repairing and refinishing each sculpture to make it presentable for exhibition once again.

Want more? What about paying per hour for several people to help you transport and install the art which often requires traveling a considerable distance to another city or state. So you can expect to cover meals and heaven forbid, an overnight stay in a hotel on top of the wages. For a permanent installation you’ll be required to have the artwork certified safe by a structural engineer (a $1000 minimum) and for most installations you’ll want to have an extra insurance policy to cover vandalism and other damages. And since my teleportation technology is not nearly as advanced as that of Willy Wonka, I still have to use a truck and trailer (did I mention you’ll need to buy a trailer?) and pay the going rate for a few tanks of gasoline.

Oh, and then there’s that pesky day job. What? You thought all you were going to have to do was make art and drink coffee? No, see, there’s the issue of the home mortgage and the family. You’ll need a full time job that actually pays a salary and you may even find yourself working a part time job as well. But when will you make sculpture? You’ll do that during the time that most normal people call “spare time” or perhaps what they call “bed time”. And since most public and private organizations do not operate on weekends, if you plan to install art on their property, or visit the site to plan such an installation, or meet with a committee to talk about the possibility of perhaps, maybe thinking about installing art, you’ll need several days off from the full time and part time jobs during each year. If you’d like to be paid for these days, you’ll learn to call this “vacation”. Speaking of time, you might want to plan to spend hours each week communicating by email and telephone and finding time to meet with people who seem interested in what you do. Avoid doing this during the full or part time jobs as that can lead to you no longer having the full or part time jobs. Also set aside time for publicity, interviews, and of course you’ll still need to keep up your personal research and reading and you’ll need to write about your artistic output on a regular basis.

Have I left out some things? Definitely. I’ve left out a lot of things. An artist can also count on these very expensive machines breaking down throughout each year. One recent day revealed a small problem with my plasma torch that had to be fixed immediately in order to continue working. This simple problem cost me several hundred dollars just for the part which I had to install myself.

Complain much? Well, no actually I find no solace in complaining. It’s a waste of precious time (see above). So why make these lists and disclose all this potentially frustrating information? Because my experience has shown that when people begin to realize all that goes into making a work of art they are less likely to feel cheated by the price. I’ve met individuals who express their heartfelt thanks just for producing works of art under these circumstances. I’ve even found more realistic people who ask why anyone would be financially irresponsible enough to try to make public sculpture if all this is true. And maybe that’s the best question to examine. Why go to all the trouble to make public sculpture?

I thoroughly enjoy making sculpture. I enjoy the process with its physical and mental challenges. Call it childlike or primitive, but there’s something so very satisfying about creating something with your hands. There’s a deep pleasure to be derived from imagining an object in your head and being able to render it in three-dimensional space. I also enjoy making viewers think and ask questions. I like to think that my abstract sculptures work to call memories or images to the tip of the viewer’s tongue, or perhaps the tip of their brains. I hope that many viewers view work and think that there’s something almost familiar about it even though they may not be able to pin down the exact answer in a single viewing. I like to make people think.

Still, one could enjoy this practice and choose to only exhibit those objects in galleries and interior museum spaces and one could save thousands of dollars and many hours of labor by doing so.

The difference is the audience.

In a gallery or museum you may snag the occasional school group and perhaps in the right city you may even be surprised by a couple of tourists looking for conditioned air or shelter from the low, wet clouds. More typically you can expect your audience to be gallery patrons, gallery assistants, collectors, or other people connected by some interest in the visual arts. Generally these individuals will get the art history references and may even be familiar with the artist’s previous work and personal information. Many of these viewers would be considered “insiders”. While these people are very important to me they only represent half of my interest as an artist.

I grew up making objects in my father’s metal fabrication shop. My dad’s customers ran the spectrum in terms of education and culture. On any given day you might see a high school drop-out, a college professor, and industrial engineer, a serious farmer, and a yuppie all bringing things in to be created or repaired. During Graduate school when I would be working on my latest art project, any number of those customers would walk over and ask me what I was making. With such a wide range of individuals asking, I learned quickly that a single blanket answer would not do. As these types of conversations continued for many months I realized my work also began to change. Early in the planning stages of a new sculpture I found myself carefully embedding several different layers of meaning in each new work. I consciously wanted to make sure I had something there for everyone who cared enough to ask. There was a glimpse of Minimalism and Post Minimalism and a heavy coating of Modernism for the art historian. Maybe that image was a reference to Greek Mythology for the professor? What about that thing that looks like that cartoon my kids watch? Yes, that was in there too. And did you realize that little thing there looks just like the chickens we used to raise when I was a child? Yes, it’s in there. These people who were being kind, sociable, and curious left their mark on the development of a large body of work. They changed how I approached visual communication.

And now despite the difficulty, I still find myself seeking ways to keep that relationship alive. When your sculpture is deposited by the side of the intersection or just off the sidewalk you’re not encountering people when they are “prepared” to view art. They have not decided to make this day a cultural day or an educational outing for their children. They’re just on their way somewhere. These are people going to work or meeting friends for dinner or racing to their attorney’s office. As a result their response is instant and honest. It’s crap. It’s funny. It’s a rabbit. It’s the devil with his tongue stuck out. It’s a waste of tax money. Whatever the response you can count on one thing, this is what they really think. And that is the key…..they think.

Would I like for the average viewer to get some of the references? Of course. Do I hope that after consideration viewers make connections with specific memories and experiences based on my use of image and color? Absolutely. But am I also happy if someone just walks by and smiles at the art without a second thought?

Immensely. It is communication in one of the simplest forms.


Carlee said...

nice rant. I might link to it.

e-sketchbook said...

it's not a rant, just a public service announcement for those who would host public art and those unfortunate souls who think they want to be sculptors.
but feel free to link away.