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.