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A Beginners Guide to Becoming a Public Artist

Visiting cities where there is public art has become an enjoyable passtime for art enthusiasts and artists alike. Cities and towns everywhere are investing in public art to create a vibe and attract visitors for the enhancement of their local economy. This might have you thinking that you could become a public artist, and that you would be interested in learning where to begin. If you are interested in work as a muralist, a sculptor, or a digital artist, this beginners guide is for you.

There are countless guides for the general public to find public art to enjoy in various locations around the world, but if you are an artist seeking information to get into the public art scene, it's crickets out there. There is one guide written by artists for artists which is available through Amazon, and you can find that here. It's available by kindle or in paperback. If you live in a less urban area where public art projects will be smaller and harder to come by, or you will have to generate them yourself, this guide might not apply as closely to your situation, so I will share my experience with you to fill that gap.

My personal specialty is 2D mural design and painting, both interior and exterior. I have done some hand painted 3D art installations. I began doing interior murals with private clients, then eventually forayed into public art when it became popular on a wider scale and it spread to the medium and smaller sized communities. You can see my murals here.

#1: Why Become a Public Artist?

If you have talent to share with the world, making public art is a great way to do it. Public art is enjoyed by everyone who sees it regardless of who they are, because everyone can access to it for free. It's unrestrained accessability and equitable nature is what distinguishes it from art in galleries, museums, and private collections where a fee must be paid for entry, you have to buy it, or you have to know the right people. Public art lives within communities. Making it is great for increasing your public visibility and reputation as an artist, and for name recognition. It's also an opportunity to build a relationship within communities that can lead to more public art work, as well as more sales of your studio art. Why is that the case? Sales experts will tell you that you must gain trust and familiarity with people before they will become clients and customers, and then you can make sales. People will warm up to you, learn about you and your art, and experience you as a person. They will connect with you and your work as they watch you making your art in public or attending an opening event for an installation. Muralists have an edge over other types of artists in this way, because we literally make our art in the presence of the public. They get to see the work unfold day by day, ask questions, take photos of us working,m and observe the techniques and equipment used. Humans and animals get to visit us while we work. This is priceless.

Cold sales are rare. You know how many times you have hung up on that sales call or ignored the email ad, so think in terms of building a foundation around the core of who you are and what you do. I learned very rapidly that it's important to talk with visitors coming to the mural sites and to promote the project on social media while it is happening, including promoting the funders, the city who approved it, and the entity or business who agreed to have it on their wall. It's a mass marketing extravaganza, and you will be smack in the middle of it. Traditional media coverage and podcast interviews are also common, and this increases your reach further. My mural work has ended up in numerous online and in print stories and publications.

#2: What Skills you Will Need

Making public art requires specialized skills and bears very little resemblance to studio work. Unless you are a 3D artist creating offsite in a studio, or a digital artist creating offsite who will be doing a technology based art installation, you're going to be traveling to random places to work. Sometimes 2D art can be created in the studio and shipped to indooror outdoor sites for installation, but for murals you will work onsite, and that's the focus of this blogpost. It's glorious at it's best, and grinding gig work at it's worst.

Tippy & Friends Pet Pantry: Window mural painted on this store front window in reverse glass painting technique. Inside view. The image is correct on both sides of the glass.

For those of us who create art onsite AKA "on location", there are many not so obvious skills that are necessary before you can even begin painting the artwork. You will need to know how to repair, prep, and power wash a wall correctly before applying your art, because most customers don't have a wall that's perfect and ready for paint. You might be able to get them to pay someone else for these steps, but for some calls, it's in the contract that they expect you to do literally everything from start to finish. You can always subcontract, but it's best to learn these skills. You will need to know techniques to get the design on the wall. Once your wall is ready for paint, you will need to know how to use rollers, brushes, and/or sprayers and spray paint. You need to know what paint products are compatible with what other products, and how they behave in various indoor and outdoor environments and surfaces, UV quality, and archival ratings. You will need to know about clear coats, varnish coats, and anti-graffiti coating options - this is based on what the client prefers and how high the risk of damage and vandalism is at the specific site. If a customer pays thousancds of dollars for a mural, they usually want it protected. Aside from the use of ladders, you might have to be knowledgable (or willing to learn) about how to use scaffolding, a scissor lift, a boom lift, or an articulating lift. You will need a line of credit to rent this equipment yourself in most cases, which you then charge your customer for. Sometimes the customer provides it for you. For more advanced equipment on taller buildings, you simply must become an apprentice or understudy and work with an experienced artist to develop those skills and learn to safely use the equipment. Due to the risks involved with mural making, you will need your own insurance.

Before you even touch a wall, you need people skills, and I can't emphasize this enough. You won't get to simply walk up and just do whatever you want on a wall. Wouldn't that be nice! You are likely to work with a number of people, sometimes committees and large groups of people, in the planning process. Planning usually takes months, sometimes a year, and rarely less than six weeks. Some grant funds require that you involve the public in the design process, and sometimes in the painting process itself. This is hard, even for extroverts. The paperwork and planning process can be extensive, so you need writing skills, computer skills, and the ability to create mock up designs either on paper or digitally. Everything must be done and submitted on a timeline -with deadlines - so time management is critical. In person and zoom meetings are common during the process to work through these plans.

Budgeting skills are essential. Never throw out a random number to a potential customer without doing an onsite visit to the space or wall and evaluating the job thoroughly. It's aways more work than the customer thinks it will be, and they might back out if you raise the price later.

Here's my basic budget formula to work with:

Design Time + Admin Time + Insurance + Administrative Fees

Hotel + Travel Time + Meals = Total Travel Expenses

Supplies + Materials + Amount Needed = Total Supplies Fee

Equipment Needed + Rental Fees +Overhead = Total Equipment Fee

Start Date + Daily or Hourly Fee +Estimated Hours of Work = Total Labor Fee

Add up the five categories and you have the basis for your Project Quote, AKA your Estimate. I try to get as close as possible on this number right from the start, because it will make or break your getting hired. Estimate the number of actual full work days, not weeks or weekdays, because the weather will play games with your calendar. Always estimate your timeline on exterior murals and add the phrase "weather permitting" next to start dates and ideal completion dates. If you can commute from home you can waive the travel fees, and that helps. You can also pack a lunch or buy lunch and write off the expense. I write off things I buy for my coffee breaks, snacks, and meals if for some reason I can't pack a cooler. Frankly, I am so focused on work when I'm doing a mural, I find it way better to pack a cooler with healthy food that will sustain me through my work. Leaving the site to get food disrupts my flow and also leaves my materials out in the open which can be a security and safety issue. Packing a cooler means I unpack and pack up only once during my work day, and my supplies are secure. Creating art demands a surprising amount of energy, so don't fill your cooler with junk food, and DO fill it with lots of water. You can offer new customer discounts, local discounts within a certain radius, returning customer discounts, and any holiday or special discounts if you like. It's your business. Advertising discounts helps bring in customers. During the pandemic, I offered a $200.00 pandemic discount, and that really helped to drive business for me. It was a very busy year!

Hold up, did I just say "your business"? Yes I did. You will have to register in your state as a business if you intend to do this kind of work regularly, and that's going to require skills. Find info here. You're typically going to be forming an LLC or sole proprietorship. If you have a partner that will change everything, so consult with a lawyer on what would be best for your new business. This will require not only marketing your business but also dealing with taxes, so check with your accountant on what you should be tracking and reporting. Also check with your states' department of revenue to see what your quarterly and annual filing responsibilities will be to the state. Your accountant can guide you on federal filing. If you have a talent, do not let all this red tape and paperwork stop you. Save everything. Document everything. Put everything in writing. Never work without a contract, no matter how small the job is. I don't currently have a blogpost yet on how to write estimates, invoices, and contracts, but it will be forthcoming, because that's a huge subject. If you are hired by a municipality, they will provide some guidance, and sometimes they will have their own contract for you to sign. That's OK, but read it carefully before you sign and commit to it. You can often negotiate certain points that are not necessarily fair to you. Sometimes the biggest issues are pay, other times it can be over copyright and reproduction rights. I'll blog about that subject as well in future posts.

You will need a working knowledge of the materials you intend to use, where to source them, how much they cost, how much of the different materials you will need, and how long it will take for you to do the project based on the work and the site in order to develop a budget and an accurate quote for the specific project. People will push you to just throw out a number. I always counter with "What is your budget?" and "Let me do a site visit and we can go from there. I can't tell you much of anything until I see the wall." During the site visit I look for things like wall condition, mold or water seepage issues, how fresh is the paint if there is a base coat, is the existing coat latex or oil based, what is the ground surface in front of the wall (grass or sidewalk or pavement), will it accomodate the needed equipment, are there power lines nearby, is there a source of power, water, and restrooms at the site, and will I have access? Is there WiFi? Who would be my daily contact person? Will I be given a key or key code? Is there space to store equipment during the project? I look for any safety hazards and the overall vibe of the area. Mural work is often done at odd hours or after business hours, so this is important.

Downtown sites in cities often have security cameras which is an added protection if you're working alone at night to avoid daytime heat. Unless of course you don't mind frying in the sun while woking up nagainst a baking hot brick wall! The risk of heat stroke is real. You can request that the security company and the police department as well as nearby businesses be informed of what you're doing. I ALWAYS ask for this so they don't think I'm a vandal, and I request drive by surveillance from the police to increase security at the site. I put this as a specific item request in my contracts. I did an out of town job once where I had to sleep inside a store overnight on a blow up mattress to get a mural done during the less than 72 hours when the business was closed for the weekend. I worked sometimes until 2-3 AM. It was very weird, but I succeeded. I left at midnight the last day and was just ten minutes out of town when a large deer ran into my car and did so much damage it cost me a chunk of that mural commission - and I didn't have my car for ten days - and I have hated night commutes ever since that event. You win some, you lose some! C'est la vie!

#3: What equipement you will need

Stools, step stools, and ladders are a must for a muralist. A projector helps to speed up putting the design on the wall. It can shave off days of work required when using the grid method, so if a projector and a laptop for digital projection is possible it's worth it. You can also make slides and use an old school overhead projector. In tight spaces the old fashioned overhead works best because the digital projector needs a lot of space to work from a distance, and that's not always possible. How much space will you have? Experiment at home with your equipment and take measurements. This is one of the key issues I look for on a site visit! Spray paint artists have a unique code system for applying their design to the wall, so I will leave that to them to teach you.

You will need your artist tool bag and artist paints ( acrylic and /or spray paints and varnishes) and your general toolbag with a variety of contructions tools for whatever comes up. Painter tape, roller covers, roller handles, roller trays, roller tray liners, drop cloths, paint sticks, buckets, water bottles and buckets, rags, and disposable palettes all ar a must. Chalk lines and a hydrometer are essential. You'll need primer or paint with primer to do the base coat. Don't skip the primer! I keep a charged power drill with a mixer attachment and a small hand sander (Black and Decker Mouse Sander) in my car. I always have rechargeable headlamps because I so often work extremely early or very late during the hot summer months. On that note, sun block, bug spray, and electrolyte powder should always be in your supplies. I have a plethera of measuring tapes, rulers, t-squares, triangles, and a level to make sure I have what I need for setting up any design. I keep loads of brushes of evey size in a repurposed duffle bag which I sectioned off with plastic containers to keep everything organized. I also keep painters tape, artist tape, and colored string and push pins in certain pockets of my bag for marking off where a mural is going to go, as well as chalk and vine charcoal. Spray cleaner, paper towels, Saran Wrap, disposable gloves, and hand sanitizer are staple items for clean up. I keep a broom, dust brush, and dust pan and trash bags in with my supplies. Dust masks and a respirator are required to do sanding, cleaning and for using any kind of spray painting products or those with harsh fumes. Larger old brushes serve as dust brushes to clean off walls and baseboards, and I have dedicated primer brushes. Varnish brushes are stowed separately, kept clean, and never used for anything else. I also have folding work tables in various sizes. I constantly save and store various plastic and glass containers to reuse for mixing onsite and storing my paint during the mural painting process. This is not necessary for spray paint artists, but having some around can't hurt. I will go through dozens of containers during a single mural, and hundreds during an artist lead community painting project. I literally have containers stored all over my house and mini barn, and also various people saving their containers for me. Some might say I have a container problem, and maybe I do. I confess! But I put it to good use!

#4: What Documentation you will need

When working with private clients and companies, you really only need to be able to write quotes, invoices, receipts, and contracts. It helps to have a strong social media presence and a website with a portfolio demonstrating your skills. You can also use networking platforms like LinkedIn or Alignable, and gig platforms like Thumbtack. However, when working with cities, towns, municipal groups, and not for profits, you need more than that. They will put out calls that require many documents: an artist statement, an artist resume, a portfolio, an inventory of the portfolio, and three references. This can be hard to do if you are new, so read on to see how you can get started without all the bells and whistles, and without all the investment in brushes, equipment and tools.

#5: Ways to Get Started

The fastest and easiest way to begin is to look for an artist willing to take on an apprentice or assistant. It can be gig by gig or ongoing. Didn't know that public artists were part of the gig ecomony? Well now you know. This is a complex subject because sole proprietors can't hire employees without changing the category of their business filing from soleproprietor to LLC, or to a partnership. Also buying worker compensation insurance instantly becomes legally required to cover you if you are hired as an ongoing employee or business partner. That being said, you can work once or as often as you want on and off with an established artist to build your resume. You might arrange for an unpaid apprenticeship or something where you are paid an artist stipend for your part of the work. This does NOT make you an employee of the artist, it just means you have been commissioned to work under the lead artist, or on a team with others, or as a partner on aq gig. Some artists will let you sign as a mural assistant on the finished wall you helped with. It depends on the job and the type of mural and the arrangement you make. If you are working a lot on the gig and you're getting paid a good portion for the work, you should certainly be able to co-sign it and to add it to your portfolio as part of your team/collaboration projects. Artist teams are common, especially with grant projects, because the work can be done faster with a team. Make sure you are comfortable with the arrangement, and I recommend you get your agreement with that artist or artist team in writing. What is agreed to verbally is not always recalled later, or things can turn out different than you thought they would or how you would like it to be. What's in writing is what stands. It's best for all involved if the agreement is in writing, and no changes can occur to that agreement without the aproval of all parties. This helps to keep a team working well together. I've had some great experiences with artist teams, and I've had some where a lot of things went wrong. Be thoughtful of who you collaborate with, and get to know them and their work ethics. When you commit to an agreement, be true to your word. Because teams and collaborations are now so common, as well as artists getting fiscal agents to access grants, it is the recommendation of the North Carolina State Arts Council that all artist teams and fiscal agents have written agreements whenever they are working together. I completely agree with them.

Dream Team Artists, 2022, Reidsville Teen Center. Photo by Gordon Allen Left to right: Mary E E Ryan, Meesha Walker, Ruby Blanco.

#6: Where to Look for Public Art Jobs

Private client jobs come from marketing and word of mouth. Your reputation preceeds you, so always be aware of that and be conscious of your professionalism. Most public art project opportunities occur when a City , Town or organization decides they want public art. They obtain funding for their project through grants or private donors. They organize what they are asking for and then put out a call to artists. Their call could be an RFP (request for proposals) which is basically seeing what ideas will be generated by artists in the community. They have a desire for public art a loose plan such as location and budget. They want you to get creative and envision something to fit the location and budget, whatever that vision might be. You would respond with your project proposal according to their requirements. Otherwise their call could come as an RFQ (requst for qualifications). In this case they already know the job they want done and have a fairly fleshed out concept for the design and content. They're looking for an artist qualified to get the job. It is harder to get n RFQ job because committees typically go for the artist with the strongest existing portfolio. If you are new, an RFP call gives you a chance to come up with a brilliant idea, even if you have less experience. Again, you would follow the format of how they want to receive the information. Cities often use certain platforms to issue their calls so everything comes through that one channel, streamlining it for the committee. This is especially the case when it's a blind jury process and the committee members only see images, not names, in the selection process. If you get chosen as a finalist in one of these highly sought after calls, you often have to go through initial meetings and interviews before you can be considered for a contract. It's just like a job interview, so take it seriously. There's usually a stipend if they ask you to create a design before they decide who of the three finalists will get the contract. As you can probably see, this is a lot to go through for a gig job, so many artists only work with private clients. You can find examples of artist calls here, here, and here. Some cities put calls out on social media and their city websites, and perhaps local online venues with a lot of followers. Many cities alert local arts councils so the alerts go straigh to the arts community, so get on those mailing lists and keep an eye out for opportunities! You can also look for other muralists to team up with through the local arts councils.

Another approach you can try is to go to the city of interest yourself and form a relationship with either a city manager, a downtown development manager, or a marketing manager. You can also reach our to department heads such as Parks and Recreation to begin talking about your ideas. Sometimes this works out, because they want what you are proposing, and they are willing to work with you to find funding. I can't emphasize enough the importance of these working relationships and how you should nurture them. You can also talk with your local Chamber of Commerce and members of your local downtown corporations. These people want development that draws both locals and out of town visitors in, and many of them already now how public art can help facilitate that. You just might pitch and negotiate your way into a public art project.

By now you have probably deduced that your artist skills are only a part of the overall skillset you will need to be a public artist. Of all the skills - equipment, techniques, assessment, writing, budgeting, knowledge of materials, artistic skills and people skills - I have put an emphasis on people skills the most. The moment you have friction with a client you can lose an opportunity. It might be their fault, but that won't matter if you lose the opportunity to do the work. That being said, not every client is worth working with. There are lines thatn shouldn't be crossed by either the client or the artist. Yup, I'll be blogging on that subject!

Learning to navigate as a professional business person, following instructions correctly, following through completely and on time, and showing up when you're supposed to are worth much more as a whole than the best artistic skills . If this sounds unbearable to you, you might still do public art on a team and let the lead artist do the hard parts with paperwork, contract, budgeting, invoices, etc. while you focus solely on the artwork. You will still have to provide your personal artist credentials and follow the lead artist instructions. You can't have your cake and eat it too. There's no complete escape from the paperwork.

Alternately, if you have worked in another field where you have honed many of these other skills, you can utilize those abilities in a public artist business with vigor and you can do very well. I had a number of skills from previous jobs that transitioned like a hand in a glove to working as a muralist in both the public and private sector. It's especially helpful to have good writing skills, and critical if you're going to apply for grants. Sometimes business people team up and partner with artists for a dynamic duo where each person is using their special skills for the best outcome. A great example of this is Brad and Tammy Spencer. Brad makes the amazing brick sculptures, and his wife Tammy handles the paperwork and organization like a champion. They are truly a dynamic duo.

My advice, dear readers, is that you weigh the pros and cons, and the ins and outs of this business and it's requirements against your soul and your greatest desires, and see if being a public artist lands up or down, and how you want to go about getting started if it;s a thumbs up for you. It's not an easy job by any stretch, and the landscape of it is contantly changing, creating a constant learning curve with no end, but the rewards can be powerful beyond words.


Mary E D Ryan Art

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