Art Workers: Interview with Tommy Gregory Part II

This interview is the first in a series about labor and art, a kind of “how the sausage gets made” of the visual world. We’re starting close to home (in fact inside my home) with my partner Tommy Gregory, who is the Sr. Project Manager for the Port of Seattle’s Public Art Program; at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and has ten years of experience in the field between San Antonio, Houston, and Seattle. The second part of our interview focuses on information specifically for artists who want to know how the process works for them. 
**if there’s an art profession you’d like to see interviewed here, please suggest in the comments. I would like to make this a regular feature of the blog.

Jo Ann Fleischhauer, Trapping Time, temporary installation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Jo Ann Fleischhauer, Trapping Time, installation view. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Casey: Can you take us through the process from funding to completion in a few simple steps?
  • The airport identifies a need, usually a new capital improvement project, like the construction of a new terminal or concourse is approved.
  • Typically, 1% of the overall public facing construction budget is set aside for public art
  • The public art program writes criteria that is approved by aviation department directors and commissioners.
  • We conduct an open call with the perimeters for the project defined (space, timeline, budget, etc…)

The application phase is typically managed by a non-profit art agency.  In Houston it was HAA, here it has been 4Culture. Once an artist is selected, they are contacted and then go into design phase. It is a little unique here, because in Houston the selected artist is contracted and then does design, fabrication and installation. Here the port has the contracted artist go through the design phase and then amends the contract to add fabrication and installation. This has its pros and cons, but I do like that we can collaboratively define the next phases more accurately by doing it this way. 

  • Design phase: Artist works closely with the public art program and port architects to refine a design rendering that is presented to the art oversite committee.  Once approved, the contract is amended and the artist invoices the port for design completion (usually uses some of these funds to hire engineers or designers for the fabrication phase)
  • Fabrication phase:  The artist and port project managers work together at making sure all of their construction docs and engineering drawings are in line with port standards. Permitting happens during this phase, as well as a safety plan. All the while the artist should be compiling a maintenance and conservation document.
  • Installation phase:  The artists should have invoiced completely for fabrication, and hopefully budgeted appropriately to handle this phase. All of those working on site need to take safety classes and always arrive on site with the proper PPE (personal protective equipment). Like I have said, this is pretty much a construction job by now.  
  • Closeout phase:  The owner (the Airport) does a final checklist to make sure the artwork is in safe, the labels are correct, the maintenance and conservation report is in, and then the artist invoices for final payment.   
Again…this is [a] quick read of this process…which again is similar, but unique from airport to airport.

Mark Bradford, Bell Tower, Los Angeles International Airport.

Casey: If I’m an artist very familiar with the gallery scene, but with little knowledge about public art and the process, what would be the most important thing you’d want me to know?

Tommy: First, most public art open calls are free to the apply to…so apply.  Even if you have no public art experience it is good to get your work in front of the selection committee. They are usually comprised of a stakeholders from whatever institution is commissioning the work, but there is always a couple of good public art professionals who will be viewing the proposals as well. I have stressed this before in lectures that public art is not for every artist; some budgets are great but for the most part it is really a labor of love because you will not be treated like you are in a gallery, university or museum. These are basically construction jobs as much as fine art commissions.  Second, I urge studio/gallery artists to apply.  Too many public art commissions have been awarded to those who dabble in art, but have professions in landscape architecture or graphic design (skills in their own right, but we are in need of challenging visual culture right now)  

Francis Celentano, Spectrum Delta II, Seattle Tacoma International Airport, ticketing level. Photo courtesy of Tommy Gregory.

Casey: If an artist is selected for a public work, let’s use a budget of $1 million as an example, how much should the artist expect as fee from that project?
Tommy: Contracted artists, working within the guidelines of civic art, should aim for between 10-18%.  It is a misconception from most of the general public that an artist pockets the total of the reported budget. A lot of folks know better, but I think it is important for people to know the responsibilities these artists take on. From insurance coverage and engineering to specialized labor and materials, the overall budget goes into the product. With a good project manager, the commissioned artist should make at least 15%. I have never worked with an artist who has lost money, but I have spoken with many big public artists who started out knowing they would not make any money [on their first project]. Their ambitious hope was to make a piece they could never make without such a budget, and had…aspirations that they would get other projects due to the sacrifice, and in almost all cases success in going above and beyond.  
There isn’t really a formula because each artist and project is unique, and from my experience each commissioning body or organization has slightly different methods and contracts that artists are held to.  I never think an artist should lose, but [you should] be prepared to cut sizable checks from your overall budget to a number of specialists to ensure a great, long lasting public art project.  

Metz & Chew, Cathedral, Seattle Tacoma International Airport, installation view. Photo courtesy of Tommy Gregory.

Casey: What do you think your own experience as an artist brings to the table as an administrator?
Tommy: I have been very fortunate to be a practicing artist as well as hold a full time public art position, and I know that I have the duty to keep the art and artist’s vision pure within the public art process. Since I have been in this field the past ten years, I have attended a number of conferences and worked closely with many public art professionals, and I haven’t seen a lot of my former colleagues who have Master’s [degree] in the field. It is changing though. The last big meeting I attended in DC was predominately art professionals with backgrounds in Art History or Studio Art. I feel this really makes the public art administrator a better conduit between the contracted artist and the commissioning body. I have found that having someone like me in the airport has been beneficial–an artist as well as someone who loves talking art–I really get to educate those who may have never taken an art class or may have never registered that the airport has such a prominent public art collection. My personal experience as a fabricator and installation specialist has made the projects I have managed much stronger during those phases, but the process and the contracts that artists are currently made to sign once they have won a commission still are problematic and eat up a lot of the artist’s attention and energy. We, my colleagues in other airports as well as other public art agencies, are working hard to simplify the contracts and streamline the payment and permitting processes. This will lead to better products and hopefully greater public art opportunities. 

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