Back to Top
  /  Blog  /  The Fallacy of Public Art – Part 1

The Fallacy of Public Art – Part 1

I have been rejected from yet another open call public art competition. This makes 119 in my career and I have never won an open call competition. I do have several sculpture in public space projects to my credit, but these have been the result of either direct commissions, or invited call competitions. I have learned that open calls are a farce.

During the 1980’s, I entered open call public art competitions, and was rejected from them all. While it hurt, I understood that I was a new kid on the block without much experience. After 25 rejections, I figured I would keep trying, keeping in mind the old adage “throw enough shit at the wall, and eventually some will stick.” By 1990, I was at 52 rejections, but soldiered on. Of course, I was analyzing each competition, and seeing what was chosen and who was creating the project solutions. I began to see a pattern.

By 1995, I was at 75 rejections, and it became a bit of a game. Could I make it to 100? Yes indeed! By 2002, I was at 104 rejections, and realized that the world’s open call competition juries just didn’t want a Michael Binkley. Period. In the last 12 years, I have entered a few more open calls, to ones that I thought were looking for art solutions. But the politics have not changed since 1990 and not just here in Vancouver, but internationally.

My 119th rejection was for a call for a sculptor to carve 21 blocks of granite while they are on site installed in Main Street Square, Rapid City, South Dakota, USA (photo above). This seemed on the surface to be a great opportunity for me, and the possibility that the political climate of Public Art was changing. Rapid City has renovated their Main Street Square and included 21 large granite stones, beautifully articulated to look like a stylized landscape of mountains and mesas. The whole project seems to be finished, and clearly some landscape designer crafted the Square. Now they are looking to have someone carve the carefully designed granite stones. What the organizers duped me into believing was that they wanted an artist to come and carve their stones and to interact with the public. They had chosen me among 30 other semi-finalists, but curiously only myself and Brian Goldbloom  showed evidence of an ability to carve granite into a discrete sculpture. The rest of the pack were either landscape designers, or sculptors of metal, limestone or sandstone. Brian and I received our rejection letter along with a notice of the five finalists. There are four landscape designers and one sculptor who has not carved a single granite sculpture in his portfolio. I will watch with interest as to what is actually chosen for this project. Losing out on a $2 million opportunity sucks.

The pattern I saw forming in 1990 has not changed, though I hoped it would in this second decade of the 21st Century. The politics of Public Art have not changed. Public Art is not art at all and it is not produced by artists.

With a few exceptions, Public Art is not art but Industrial Design, or Landscape Design. Manhole covers, bus stop shelters, plaza paving patterns, earth berms, tree grates, park benches, park signs, underground parking garage exhaust vents, building windows, public washrooms, baseball diamond backstops, bike racks, viewing platforms, garbage receptacles, retaining walls, sound barrier walls, garden trellises are all examples of Public Art. They are NOT art, but are in fact utilitarian public amenities and making them pretty is done through Industrial Design, not Art. What will the result be in Rapid City if the landscape design is already done?

Projects for open calls are not awarded to artists.  There is no filtering criteria for the open call public Art competition process. All the open calls dictate that only professional artists or artist groups need apply. Read “professional”, from the root word profession – the vocation by which one earns one’s living. That is what I do – make and sell fine art sculpture as my living. But the winners of Open Call competitions are professors, teachers, architects, landscape designers, economists, lawyers, furniture designers, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. All are people who clearly do not earn their living from the production and sale of artwork, but dabble in art in their free time. And the majority do not even have the capacity to make the solutions they propose. They are merely idea people who then farm out the production of their proposal. So how is it they are even considered in the first place? The playing field is clearly uneven.

I have noticed three common denominators with regard to my rejections from open call Public Art competitions:

I am a professional artist. I have over 30 years experience working in the field of creating and selling art. Open call juries do not select professional artists.

I work in stone. Very few juries choose solutions of stone. Almost all are projects that involve manmade materials.

I do not have a post secondary degree of any kind, least of all from an art school. Juries select applicants who have a degree from some lofty institution in the field of law, architecture, economics, science or art, etc.

Open call public art competitions are driven by academics. These are people who have drunk the Koolaide and believe industrial and landscape design is art. I create fine art for public spaces, but I do not create public art. As I look back on the thousands of hours I’ve spent entering these farces, I have learned that I should stop the madness. There are so many other opportunities for me where a welcome audience awaits.

Comments: 16

  • August 9, 2012
    reply

    I don’t even try. I don’t have any higher education , much less an art degree and that seems to be required. Plus , all the paperwork and work expended in submittal of idea, design, and engineering.Lot of work there on a gamble. I can overcome the lack of degree by using a degree of someone in my hire, but the effort is not worth the risk of reward when I am doing fine in the private sector.

  • August 9, 2012
    reply

    I can agree that stone is seldom chosen for public places any more. They want metal that is less easily vandalized and can be power washed when it is.

  • Michael Binkley

    August 9, 2012
    reply

    Philip, Thanks for your comments. Yes, I’m back in your corner and won’t be applying to any more open calls. As to materials, I disagree. Stone – especially granite – is the absolute best material for outdoor art. It will not decompose, is very strong and easier to clean than any metal!

  • August 9, 2012
    reply

    Hi Mike My experiences line up with yours .
    With a three-month period to submit application for a public call , I was told on the first day of submission that the committee had already chosen the artist .
    This is usually the case they use the artist to fulfill the requirements for the fake front of an open competition .
    Very sad and political .
    I now work on commissioned pieces only.
    Morris

  • August 9, 2012
    reply

    While I agree completely that there are a lot of politics involved in the making of these decisions, I am really interested in your personal decision making process. I tend to give up very easily, so one or two rejections are enough. Yet you soldiered on through 119 rejections and then said enough. I have to say I really admire your fortitude.

    What motivated you to keep on submitting? Was it optimism, research, confidence or ambition? And why was this competition the final straw?

    If there anyone reads this post who has been on an open call jury, it would be interesting to hear their side of things. I’ve only been on a couple of art show juries, but I’ve noticed that there is usually one person who drives the process, and he/she has an agenda.

    • August 9, 2012
      reply

      M.A. – As I said, Michelle and thought “Throw enough shit…” But we learned the mechanics of the machine instead and it isn’t a vehicle we want to ride on. This comp. looked right for us. Landscape design was complete, now they appeared to be looking for a fine artist to step in. WRONG! Final straw.
      I have more thoughts on the subject coming up….

  • August 12, 2012
    reply

    I have enjoyed the food for thought in yore comments about public art and the stream of comments following yours. I am a metal artist and recently completed a work with a partner that was fabricated. It is my second public piece. I must say the first was more fulfilling because I was able to create it myself. The second was a commission and they wanted a fabricated piece. In truth, they came to me because I was willing to work within their cheap budget. I was willing to do it in order to get my foot in the door. I invited another metal artist to work with me. We considered it out graduate course in public art. We have applied for several other things but have not gotten them. I haven’t had your experience with so many applications, but I do wonder if all of the red tape is worth the effort. I can see why you would have tried one more time with the last one. Creating in your medium while interacting with the public was an interesting challenge. You sound like a determined person. I bet if something that tantalizing comes up again your optimistic nature might lead you to try one more time. Good luck!

  • August 12, 2012
    reply

    This is a very well stated opinion of what constitutes ‘public art’ I will also watch with interest what transpires in this case. Being a relatively new artist I am learning that dealing with rejection is a major part of the picture. It encourages me that an artist of your calibre also still deals with this nonsense. I think you should know that your work inspires other emerging artists as well as the public at large. My greatest encouragement is seeing how people react to my work especially people of different ages and backgrounds.

  • August 14, 2012
    reply

    It’s a shame Michael,who knows what the criteria is?…I look forward to one day walking down some main street and coming across a Binkley in all it’s beauty and glory!-Mike.

    • August 14, 2012
      reply

      Nothing on the North Shore yet – you’ll have to go to Vancouver, or Whiterock, or Sonora Island, or Maui, or Philadelphia, or the QM2 to come across one of my public sculptures.
      Thanks for your support, Mike!

  • Peter Diepenbrock

    August 14, 2012
    reply

    The process is very challenging, time consuming, and frustrating indeed. But I believe you are being a bit sweeping in your conclusions. I am a self employed artist, building everything I design with my own hands. I actually have a degree in Industrial Design, and have applied those skills to my advantage. I am an artist, and I have won several commissions through open calls. The design process can be grueling, but the system can work. I would find it a great loss if these calls were no longer offered.

    • August 14, 2012
      reply

      Peter, Thank you – you solidify one of my points. Open call public art competitions go to those who have experience as or are Industrial Designers. Yes, there are some discrete sculpture exceptions, but for the most part, Public Art is Industrial Design, or Landscape Design.

  • August 17, 2012
    reply

    I have been following your sculptures for a few years now as a stone sculptor in the UK. Good for you writing this article. Most councils are risk averse and have to pander to lower common denominators. I am not knocking the work produced but in some cases it can be bland, boring and risk free at best.

    • August 17, 2012
      reply

      Exactly, Daniel. Art by committee usually results in forgettable images. But the powers that preside over the competitions walk away patting themselves on the back thinking a stamped concrete retaining wall is a wonderful work of art.

  • August 27, 2012
    reply

    Have enjoyed this line of discussion, and have my own horror stories I could share. But just wondering if anyone answering open calls for ourdoor works has had this experience: I answered an open call several years ago at a reputable Arboretum which I won’t name. After traveling,visiting the sites, creating the maquette, along with the research, footwork, phone calls, and spending about $1,000. out of pocket, they quietly changed the plan in the middle of the game. It then became an Invitational, complete with handing it over to a locat art consultant. Only big names were invited, and needless to say, my 3 proposals weren’t even looked at or returned. Pressing the matter was useless and I was more-or-less lied to.

  • September 5, 2012
    reply

    I have also applied a couple of times and found your insight correct with those who make the decisions in my area. I gave up on any hope of being considered in my area, mainly because all public art is metal here as well. Like so many, I only accept commissions. With that, when I have no commissions, I work on my own desires, put them to good use in my very public front yard (boy would the City like to get rid of me) and even better (the News channels love me). Still doesn’t pay the bills though.

Leave a reply