Artist Q&A: How Do I Get Commissions For Public Works?

For our latest artist Q&A, we talked to sculptor Bart Walter, who has created many public works, like the piece he recently unveiled at the airport in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (see photo below). As Bart mentions in his response to our query, it’s not easy for artists to gain entry to the world of public commissions. To get your foot in the door, you must often take a step that CHF would normally advise against—namely, to give away your work for free, or at a price that’s far below what it would typically draw. If you decide to go this route, make the decision part of your strategic long-term plan for growing this segment of your business and practice. We thank Bart for sharing his insights with us.

How do I get commissions for public works?

Battle of Wills by Bart Walter, at Jackson Hole Airport

Public-art projects are generally awarded to those artists with prior experience. Of course this presents a Catch-22 dilemma. You need prior experience to get the job, but no one will hire you, so you cannot gain the required experience.

My solution was to all but give away the first public sculptures I created—in other words, I undercut the competition! I made sure that my fixed costs were covered, but did not charge much of anything for my time and effort. This paid off in the long run, but was financially painful at the beginning.

Remember to Smile

Almost all of the public art projects I have worked on began with meeting someone at an art exhibition, or in a social situation. 

Be Patient

Like a farmer planting seeds, we show our work, talk with the public, and hope some of the seeds we throw land on fertile soil. It may take many years for the first seeds to bear fruit. 

Always Keep Your Eyes Open to Possibilities

Whether it is a call for artists, or a casual comment in a social setting, always be alert to potential opportunities. 

Be Prepared

When opportunity knocks, you need to seize it immediately. Images, resume, artist statement, etc.—all of these need to be ready and waiting.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

You will fail to get most of the public-art opportunities that you pursue. Do not be discouraged. Stand back up, dust yourself off, and try again.

Some of my biggest successes have come after initial failures with the very same clients. Success is not measured by how many times you try and fail, but by how many times you get back up and run at that obstacle again.

Keep Your Standards High

Never let anyone tell you that accepting a commission is “selling out your integrity.” I value a certain proportion of commission work, for these projects cause me to respond creatively to specific sites, and sometimes they make me try subject matter that is new to me. In other words, commissions help me stretch and grow as an artist, pushing me beyond my comfort zone. If you are making great art, the other considerations fall by the wayside, period.

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Bart Walter
A full-time sculptor for three decades, Bart Walter is known primarily for his unique and dynamic approach to surface, and his bronze sculptures are sought after by collectors and institutions. His work can be found in notable public and private collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC, the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and The Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, California. His studio is located in Westminster, Maryland.

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