Aisling Prior

Rough notes on the selection of artists for public art commissions - a curator's perspective

Depending on the nature of the brief and the expectation of the commission, there are many different ways to make a submission for consideration. Typically, as a curator of a pubic art commission, I tend not to formulate a very tight brief; one with specifications, expressed aspirations and requirements (unless, of course where there are very pronounced objectives and parameters laid out by the commissioning body) and strict budgets.

I prefer to explicitly present the context and motivation for the commission/artwork and expect artists to decide whether these factors are of interest to them in terms of their on-going practice.

I would further allow the artist to nominate an approximate sum of money required to cover their fee and implementation costs. However, this is generally re-visited at great length when we have decided on the actual work to be produced, which happens some time after the artist has been awarded the commission. The same applies to how a time scale is agreed.

This way of working can be difficult for artists as an actual proposal is not exactly being sought. What is being looked for in the submission stages is merely a CV, examples of previous work and an 'approach' -  an enquiry into, and a logic as to, why and how a work will be produced through the commission. So the artist is being selected, not a proposal.

Upon being awarded a commission a reasonable period of time is worked out whereby the selected artist is paid a fee to carry out critical research which will ultimately result in the making of a new work*. 

This period of research is interjected with meetings with the curator, the client and the constituent community or audience if appropriate. At these meetings, we discuss other artists' work which may be referenced, or not, the nuts and bolts of the production of the work, how the work will be mediated and we fix a budget and timescale.

Since it is the artist not the proposal which is being selected, the curator of the commission will obviously be researching artists' practice, nationally and internationally and, depending on the rough, overall budget available, the curator may take into consideration factors such as you might, in terms of the trajectory of their career, be able or be ready to work to such a scale of expectation, large or small.

Where an artist doesn't have a significant body of previous work to present, a curator can still appreciate potential and capacity from submitted images and a well thought out expression of interest.

I would suggest that artists consider having two versions of their CV; the comprehensive version which may run to several pages and a, shorter two-page version, which highlights areas of commonality or relevance to the commission being applied for.  Selectors simply don't have sufficient time to read through pages and pages of documentation.  

Also, high resolution A4 prints of visual work (including stills from moving image work, or gallery shots of exhibitions) are extremely useful for selectors. Their simple physicality means they can be easily passed around a group, and, during discussions, images on paper can be returned to far easier than say those on a cd or dvd. (Where artists are submitting sound works, music, literature, it is important to provide accurate and simple instructions as to which excerpts to listen to/read and to indicate the duration of piece if it is imperative that an entire piece be listened to/read, being mindful of the demands this is making on the selectors, quite possibly at the expense of other submitting artists being given due consideration). Of course, every individual item needs to include artist's name, title, date, dimensions of work if applicable, place etc. Increasingly artists are putting up their own websites, a further useful tool of reference for selectors.

As a curator, I am primarily looking for an expression of a unique imagination, a demonstrable curiosity about, and a fresh perspective on, the lives we lead and the world in which we lead them. Some of the qualities I am drawn to in an artist's practice are inventiveness, wit, iconoclasm, popularism, wilfulness, daftness, technical virtuosity (which is a bit old fashioned of me).  When proposing to work with an artist I need to be assured of their availability, their self-confidence in terms of their ability to deliver a commission, I like to know of the technical expertise they can call on,  and of their expressed and demonstrable enthusiasm and conviction for the project.

There is an an inherent dichotomy for artists working on public art commissions, which is that their work is being sought precisely because it is assured, strong, unique, yet they will be expected to be open to negotiation, and possibly compromise! Intrinsic to the public art transaction is a level of expectation in an artwork performing some purpose which is not  generally required of an artwork made for private collections, ie museums or galleries.

Artists should be aware of the binary nature of a public art contract and should be able, even eager, to work across professions, as all public art commissions require this type of collaboration. It should therefore, be discernable to the selector from the accompanying statement of intent or expression of interest, that the artist proposing to be selected is amenable to working in an expanded way.

January 2009

'Work' denotes artwork, project, series of works, temporary, permanent. It applies to artists' work across artforms.


Aisling Prior is a graduate of Philosophy and English at UCD and of the Masters in Visual Art Practices at IADT. She was director of the Breaking Ground art commissions programme where she produced 40 innovative projects in Ballymun, Dublin as part of that area's regeneration. Breaking Ground has been widely recognised as the flagship of contemporary public art projects in Ireland. While working in Paris, she co-organised a major retrospective of Irish Cinema at the Centre Georges Pompidou. She was the founder director of the Galway Film Centre and was the Director of the Sculptors' Society of Ireland, (VAI). Most recently, she curated the Art in the Life World conference and exhibition in Spring 2008.  She is curator of visual arts, Kilkenny Arts Festival 2009.


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Portayals from Breaking Ground



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