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Artfully Enhanced

Although designers and architects typically don’t select the art for public projects, they do have a say. Here’s how to ensure the artwork chosen for your next project complements your final design.


Although designers and architects typically don’t select the art for public projects, they do have a say. Here’s how to ensure the artwork chosen for your next project complements your final design.

After pouring your own blood, sweat and tears into a public interiors project, the last thing you want is a clashing art program to be stuck in the middle of it. But with more municipalities adopting requirements that a certain percentage of a project’s budget be set aside for art, how can you ensure that the artwork chosen works with your aesthetic, instead of against it?

“Spaces must be designed from the beginning with art in mind,” says Brian Malarkey, executive vice president of Kirksey Architecture. “This way, the art program is not an afterthought, but simply part of the design. Frankly, well-placed and thoughtful art selections can forgive modest finish selections, saving money in the long run.”

sculpt a team for success
Many cities, including Austin, Texas, Sacramento, Calif., and Miami, Fla., have specifically appointed bodies tasked with managing art in public places, and the number is growing. These bodies may take the form of a committee, a panel or an advisory board, but they are all charged with selecting the artists and artworks for a particular location.

If you want to ensure that the artwork chosen for a project will complement your vision, don’t neglect your place within these important groups.

“The architect was on the advisory panel that selected the artist and the interview team, so they were able to have a little bit of dialogue before the selection happened, so that they could compare what their ideas might be and how they might work together,” says Meghan Turner, the city of Austin’s art in public places administrator, of Austin’s new Central Library project, which is currently in development.

“If you can do a little bit of investigation early on, that helps to ensure there’s going to be a healthy fit,” she adds. “Sometimes you don’t get that luxury, but in this case it was really good because the interview provided a foundation on how to move forward during the artist’s design-development process. The artwork for the new library could be developed in concert with how the rest of the facility developed.”

Being part of the selection or advisory group doesn’t mean that you get full reign, but it does allow you to give input to the artist as part of the team.

“Sometimes compromises need to be made,” explains Shelly Willis, the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s art in public places director. “Sometimes the artists are asked to consider things that the panelists say and create a different design than what they originally presented. The panels have a lot of influence on the artists and it works really well.”

paint a vivid picture
Unfortunately, architects and interior designers aren’t always afforded the luxury of weighing in during the art selection process. If this is the case, you still need to make your vision known to those who are involved in the process.

“When architects aren’t included, it is important for them to clearly communicate the architectural intent to the owner and/or members of the selection process,” says Gary Machicek, a senior designer for Kirksey Architecture. “This will encourage members of the selection process to consider the significant relationship between art and architecture.”

The best way to accomplish this, is to fully communicate a clear and engaging concept for the project’s architectural or interior design through as many means as possible—that includes everything from traditional proposals to video and new media presentations. This allows people who may be involved in the art deliberations, but may not have design training, to fully understand the relationship between the various elements.

collaborate to create a masterpiece
The art selection may be out of your control, but bringing the artist into the design process early can help everyone understand how the final products will all fit together.

When asked to design the new B Terminal at the Sacramento International Airport in 2010, architects from Corgan Associates knew that they needed to work closely with the city’s art selection committee.

Despite the fact that ground had already been broken by the time the selection process began, the design team worked directly with the chosen artists, including Lawrence Argent, Christian Moeller, Po Shu Wang and Louise Bertelsen to effectively incorporate their finished pieces into the terminal.

“Because it was a design-build, we were able to integrate all of the artwork into the design and construction of the airport,” says Willis. “The architect served on every single panel, approved every single design and worked closely with the artists throughout the process.”

Integrating large artworks into a space can be a challenge—you want the artwork to stand out and make a statement, but you don’t want it to clash with the space or overshadow the entire user experience. Your input can help tie the artwork into a space in a mutually beneficial way.

“If you look at the airport, the artworks are very distinct,” Willis notes. “Some of the sites are obvious—we knew that we wanted to do something large-scale and prominent as the centerpiece of the ticket hall. If that would stand on the ground or be suspended—that was the artist’s job to tell everyone what that would be, but the architect really had a distinct idea of the prominent sites, so he was really involved in that.”

fashion a functional statement piece
Of course, “art” isn’t limited to a sculpture or painting—it can be any functional piece incorporated into a building project.

For example, the city of Austin’s new recreation center includes a ventilation component in the front of the building’s entryway. Artist Jill Bedgood created a piece called “Community Screen—Community Charms,” which consisted of a screen wall of etched aluminum disks, each displaying an icon representing the various activities taking place in the rec center. This unique, unified wall provides an interesting visual aspect to the building and replaces what could have been a plain metal screen.

“When we first approach a project, we say ‘if you had more money to make your design better, where would you put it?’” says Brandi Reddick, communications and artists manager, Art in Public Places, Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. “For instance, a couple of years ago we were working with our new performing arts center and they had a terrazzo floor. The architect said to us ‘we would like to have better terrazzo floors,’ so we had an artist design the floor. We take where the budget has been cut and come back in with art money to enhance it.”

Naturally, this project already required a floor (as buildings typically do), but because the Art in Public Places program brought in an artist to design it, the floor was turned into a showstopper. “You’re going to have a floor anyway, so why not have a beautiful, artist-designed floor?” Reddick says.

In addition to the flooring, the performing arts center also skillfully incorporates hand-painted opera house curtains, an exterior plaza with a water feature that visually connects the center’s two halls, an outdoor performance space on another exterior plaza, and a glass railing—all designed by different artists.

Close collaboration is paramount when it comes to functional art components, like the screen wall in the Austin rec center or the floor of Miami’s new arts center.

“The design process for functional art involves more coordination because it relates directly to the operation of the building and potentially to building codes,” Machicek explains. “Therefore, it is critical to have the artist involved early on, developing the functional components in concert with the building design, so the art can be finalized and installed at the appropriate time in the construction process.”

In short, because architects and designs have a closer understanding of how a space should behave, it’s important to get as involved in the art selection as possible. It may not always be possible, but it is definitely worth the effort.

“[Designers and architects] are able to say ‘this is how the building is going to function, this is what my goals are, this is how the art can help reinforce my goals,’ without dictating what the art would be, because that’s what the artist does,” Willis says. “It’s critical for architects and designers to be involved in the process. They’re the voice of the place—it’s their vision and they need to be able to work with someone who is also connected to that vision. That becomes a real critical element in the success of a project.”


Kylie Wroblaski is a former editor for BUILDINGS magazine, and has written previously about architecture and facilities management.