Behind the scenes: commissioning artists for roadway public art

Public art enhances roadway projects and provides context about the culture and history of the region.

The Regional Transportation Authority requires that all major road improvement projects spend 1% of the construction cost on art, in line with similar policies many jurisdictions in the region have approved.

The path from a budget requirement to roadside art is complex and centered around public involvement and multi-agency cooperation. Typically, the Arts Foundation of Tucson and Southern Arizona has an active role in the public art process working with RTA member jurisdictions constructing roadway corridor projects.

Start with a construction project plan: First, the government agency, in one of the RTA member jurisdictions that plans, designs, contracts and manages the road improvement project, must determine the overall project budget and scope in order to determine the art budget.

Then, the jurisdiction will determine if any special art opportunities, such as retaining walls or sound barrier walls, bridges or underpasses, would avail themselves for art, said Jonathan Crowe, principal planner at the Pima County Department of Transportation.

“If there’s a project that is a gateway, for example, we might suggest some kind of feature like an archway or something that celebrates that entrance,” Crowe said. “But unless there’s something obvious like that, we are going to leave it open and let artists decide what to propose.”

Invite artists to apply: For projects in the City of Tucson or Pima County, the road project manager and the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona work together to draft a Call to Artists/Artist Teams: Request for Qualifications. This is the formal beginning of the art commission process.

“As a public art project manager, the beginning phases of when the public art team is engaged into the larger construction design process of a project is the phase when I will be working closely with the project manager to get a sense of the scope of work on the given project, and where opportunities are for art to be integrated. This helps me to tell the story in the Call to Artists describing what the opportunity is, to ignite inspiration in artists worldwide to apply for an opportunity in Tucson,” said Woods Fairchild, a public art project manager with the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona.

The Call to Artists may include context such as the history of the area, the community impact of the road improvement, or notes about the major employment, education and historic or cultural sites in the corridor.

Create a Public Art Project Panel: The panel represents the community and guides the commissioned artist. “This is really the heart of what differentiates the practice of public art, in that it is deeply woven into a public involvement process,” Fairchild said.

While the Call to Artists is live, the public art project manager works with the agency constructing the road project to set up a Public Art Project Panel, comprised of community representatives, such as those who:

  • Live near the project site
  • Teach at a nearby school
  • Own a business down the road

The group also includes local stakeholders, such as:

  • A member of a community bicycling group that uses the bike path that passes by the project site
  • Working artists and arts professionals
  • Representative from the Public Art and Community Design Committee (PACD)
  • Design team members: landscape architects and engineering experts
  • The project manager who is overseeing the road construction project

After the deadline closes, the panelists review the applications, then narrow down the pool of applicants through several rounds of review, discussion and voting until they reach three to five finalists to invite to interview. After the opportunity to meet with the artists, the panel selects an artist or artist team to commission for the project.

Refine the art concept: At this point, the public involvement process picks up. The panel informs the selected artist about the local stories, histories and cultures during a listening session.

“The panel is working with the artist to inform the artist on how or what makes this area unique,” she said.

The artist takes those stories to the drawing board, applying their artistic interpretation. Together, the panel and the artist continue to refine the concept. At that point, another public meeting invites broader feedback from the community before the final concept is determined. Upon this consensus-building with the community, the final concept designs and structural designs go through risk management review and several administrative approval steps.

Fabricate and install the art: The final step is fabrication and installation, which can be one step or two. For example, the design on a retaining wall would be fabricated when the cement was poured on-site in molds to create the walls alongside the roadway. But a sculpture might be fabricated elsewhere and shipped to Tucson, or it could be designed elsewhere before a local artist or company is contracted to fabricate it, Crowe said.

Typically, the roadway construction contractor installs the art before the final landscaping is laid, Crowe said. Ongoing maintenance is the responsibility of the government agency that built the overall road project.