How does Public Art happen?

Artists can’t just install their artwork wherever they please. Most public spaces are managed by either councils or private companies that have strict processes to help them decide what artworks are to go where. Due to cost, scale and materials public artworks are rarely pre-existing, instead they are custom made once a commission is secured.

Key Stages

The Commissioning Process

Most opportunities for artists to create artwork for public space are organised through what is called a commissioning process. This is a kind of competition through which artists’ intangible concepts are evaluated, supported and finally produced as fully realised artworks. In the first stage, artists are invited to propose their concepts for an artwork for a particular public space. Usually, any artist can enter and the entries are judged by a panel of specialists called a selection committee. A selection committee might include other artists, architects, councillors, community representatives and other stakeholders. After the committee selects a winning proposal, the artist is then allocated funds and production begins.

Artist Proposal

When an artist has an idea that they want to be considered for a public artwork commission, they need to find the best way of communicating that idea so that a panel of strangers (the selection committee) can understand and see the value in supporting it. This is called a proposal, and through it the artist explains the work that they want to make. The artist is aiming to convince the panel that their artwork would be the best choice. There are four key elements to the artist’s proposal:

1. Written description:

What the artwork will be – its concept, materials and physical appearance.

Why the artist is inspired to make the work, and how it is appropriate for that specific public space.

How the artwork will be made, and a rough plan for how the artist plans to achieve this.

2. Supporting documentation:

The artist assembles a collection of photographs and/or footage of previous artwork to help give the selection panel a ‘picture’ of what kind of artwork (style, materials, and ideas) for which the artist is best known. Good documentation tells you about the artist’s practice like a television documentary tells you about its subject.

3. Propositional images & maquettes:

Propositional images are two-dimensional visual aids (like illustrations) to help show a selection committee how the final artwork will appear – they bring the words of the proposal to life. These can be digital images, drawings or design plans.

When artist John Meade proposed his concept for Riverside Corolla 2011 he produced digital renderings which helped to not only communicate his idea to others, but also helped him to visualise and plan how his artwork would fit in a complex space – suspended in open space above escalators.

John Meade, Propositional Images for Riverside Corolla, digital rendering, 2011. Courtesy the artist.

Maquettes are  scale models which are used for proposing sculptural artworks where the artist needs to communicate to the viewer the experience of the proposed artwork in three-dimensions.

When artist Ron Robertson-Swann proposed a public sculpture for the soon to be redesigned Melbourne City Square, he produced a rudimentary model in balsa wood and yellow house paint. Despite the vastly smaller scale of Maquette for Vault 1978, it gave the architects and councillors in charge of planning the project a clear impression of how his final artwork would appear from all angles, and as a result Robertson-Swann’s proposal was the winning entry.

Ron Robertson-Swann, Maquette for Vault, synthetic polymer paint on balsa wood, 1978. Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Courtesy the artist and Charles Nodrum Gallery.

4. Curriculum Vitae:

This is like a resumé that people use to get a job, except instead of previous employment it lists artistic achievements and qualifications. It is a very important document because it demonstrates that the artist has appropriate experience and is capable of achieving their proposal.

Engineering & Fabrication

If the proposed artwork is very large in scale, heavy and requires industrial processes to be produced, the artist will engage fabricators to do this specialist work for them. For example, a fabricator might operate a foundry that can cast large bronze sculpture. Importantly, while a fabricator might physically make the artwork, they are not the artist. The artist is the person who developed the idea and created the model or plans from which the fabricators work.

Artist John Meade engaged professional fabricator Russell Cowie to build his artwork Riverside Corolla 2011. Meade provided Cowie with design renderings and a small-scale 3D printed maquette, who then translated Meade’s plans into large-scale fibreglass and steel sculptures.

Images (from top):
John Meade, 3D printed maquette for Riverside Corolla, 2011.
John Meade, Riverside Corolla, fibreglass, steel, 2011. Courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery.
John Meade with fabricator Russell Cowie, who produced Riverside Corolla, 2011.

Public Safety

In a gallery setting it is the viewer’s responsibility not to damage an artwork. However, in the public domain the opposite is also true. Artworks must be safe for people to be around, and artists must ensure that their artwork will not pose a risk to the public.

Large public artworks can weigh several tonnes and for this reason they need to be planned with an engineer to ensure they are safe for public space. Essentially, a public artwork needs to be as stable and secure as any public building. For example, Inge King’s Forward Surge 1981 is large-scale and made from huge pieces of steel. Many people, especially children, love to play and climb on Forward Surge, and so it is especially important that the artwork can withstand this extra strain.

To manage the need for safety and durability the sculpture was fabricated by the firm J.K Fasham, who also built Clement Meadmore’s Dervish located nearby.

Forward Surge under construction at J.K. Fasham construction facility, 1975-6, photograph by Grahame King; Canberra. Courtesy National Gallery of Australia research library, King papers, MS 80.

After fabrication the sculpture was set into a specially poured concrete slab which holds it in place and makes each element immovable – no matter how many skaters use the sculpture as a ramp!

Forward Surge during installation, 22 March 1981, prior to painting, showing the extensive concrete foundations. Photograph courtesy J.K. Fasham.
A skateboarder using Forward Surge as a ramp, date unknown. Photographer unknown. Source:


An important step to realising a successful public artwork is careful consideration of the site and how to best tailor the piece to its location.

For her public artwork Like lost children we live out our unfinished adventures artist Danae Valenza prepared a set of propositional images (below) showing possible arrangements for her neon artwork. This artwork was part of the ACCA in the City: The City Speaks program in 2017, and ACCA Senior Curator Annika Kristensen consulted these images to help decide, together with the artist, the best final position for the artwork.

Images 14, 15, 16 & 17: Danae Valenza, propositional images for Like lost children we live out our unfinished adventures, 2017.
Image 18: Danae Valenza, Like lost children we live out our unfinished adventures (final installation), 2017. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

The last stage! After all the processes of proposal, design, engineering and fabrication the artwork is finally ready to be installed. The conditions for the installation of a public artwork are similar to that of a building site. Artists need to get permission to close footpaths and operate heavy machinery, and all staff need to wear high-visibility safety clothing.

Petrus Spronk, Architectural fragment during installation in 1992, and pictured in 2017.

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