Creating Public Works of Art

Murals and other public works of art can bring a community together, beautify and draw attention to an area, spark conversation and create a source of pride for the people in the neighborhood. Creating the art is fun, engaging and fulfilling. It also requires a great deal of work and coordination to bring all the moving pieces together from idea to completion. It will be slightly different in each scenario, and each municipality will have its own systems, codes and precedents. I'm going to outline here step by step instructions for the way we accomplished our murals here in Princeton with hopes that it will guide you in your journey. I am also available to answer and source answers to any questions you have that come up in addition to the ones answered here.    

LEADERSHIP: The first step is to identify one or more people who will champion the project, meaning that point person that will keep things moving forward, make sure all ducks are in a row, and who will care enough to see it through properly. In my opinion, this works best with one captain. I think that our 8 wall professional mural project as well as Artists' Alley was able to navigate and avoid too many arguments, pitfalls or blockades because I was personally ushering the project. I had many people assisting me along the way, the creative decisions for selection of artists and content were made by a small committee, and of course the artists made the actual artwork happen, but it was me as the distinct, non-disputable point person who attended the meetings, prepared the papers, communicated between parties and made decisions.  So, if you plan to have a committee, make sure it is small, and made up of people who work very well together and with others.     

LOCATION/PERMISSION: The next step is finding a location and securing permission from the owner. You'll need to let them know that there will be several steps that occur as you move forward, and you will be coming to them for their approval of every step of the process: the idea and sketch of the art, any permits and approval from the city (more on that below), timing, wall prep. etc. When you are selecting a location, consider its visibility and meaning to the community. Is the mural going to represent a particular community of people or perhaps a project or idea? Is it visible to a large audience of people, and accessible? How will the residents of the neighborhood feel about the art and can you include them in the process? Another important thing to consider is the state of the surface. The smoother, the better, and it's best if the surface is in tact. We painted murals on walls whose bricks were crumbling because it was an aesthetic emergency; it was a major eyesore in our town. The paint is impermanent because the bricks are crumbling, and in this case that was ok. However, in most cases you are investing the time and resources into a mural so that it will last for years to come. Smooth stucco makes for a good painting surface, as does flat metal or wood. Bricks are a common mural surface and cinderblocks as well; however be wary of walls with holes, crumbling bricks, jagged mortar and other challenges.    

It is also important to think long-term about the survival of the mural in case the building has a change of ownership. You should consider contracting with the property owner to ensure that, if they sell, they will include an "easement stipulation" or other provision to protect that work of art. 

FUNDING: I set out on this project with the intention of using private sponsors for funding along with some seed money that came from our local nonprofit Community Connections. They pledged that seed money early on and helped us to get started. Their logo is on each one of the murals in exchange for their contribution. Private donors are the quickest way to fund a project, since all they have to do is write a check. You can offer to use their logo in the bottom corner of the work, or even perhaps incorporate them if it makes sense to the mural; an example of that is a railroad mural that was painted in our town. The Railroad Museum got a donation from Northfork Southern and they had the artist use their name on the train. Another clever funding idea came from the artists in our town who painted a bookshelf on a wall bordering the library parking lot. They had members of the community pay $100 to pick a book that would go on the shelf. Very clever! I was fundraising for the murals, when one day I brought it up to the Community Improvement Commission, which is like a beautification committee for our city. I imagined they might like to spend a few hundred dollars towards the project, but to my surprise, the mayor made a motion that the CIC substantially fund the project. It was an exciting development that a large chunk of the funding was now in play. Little did I know that it would cause the project to grind to a halt and would slow the entire process tremendously. Since government money is fraught with red tape, there were many meetings and other factors to consider such as liability and contracts. The whole process ended up taking about a year and a half before we could set the first brushstroke to the walls. It was all very much worth it though, and in retrospect, taking our time with the projects ensured that all the I's were dotted and T's were crossed. The city also feels a good deal of ownership and connection to the project since they are financially invested.     

THE ARTISTS: The next step is identifying an artist or artists to develop the work, as well as generating ideas for content.  There are a few ways to go about this, and a few different scenarios we have worked with. If you are looking at a work by a single artist, or multiple walls with multiple artists, you can put out a Request for Proposal (RFP). Using an RFP allows you to request specific ideas and sketches from artists, allowing you to keep your options open and ponder multiple ideas. If you have a specific idea for content, you can request that the artists' ideas be centered around that, or you can just make it open ended with the creativity left in their hands. I personally find the best results happen if you allow the artist to follow their own creative flow and develop the ideas on their own. You could request that they present their ideas in the form of rough sketches so that they don't invest too much time in an idea that you or the committee ultimately does not go for. In our case, and as you will see in the example RFP, we had a nice committee that was already in place- our Community Improvement Commission, which is like a beautification committee- part of the City of Princeton. We became the official body that would approve or disapprove of public works of art, and we are still formalizing that process. I'll tell you a bit more as we talk about the next step. A Request for Qualifications (RFQ) is another possibility, which asks artists to submit their resumes and samples of past work; this keeps the artist from needing to invest a ton of time developing a sketch. One you've selected an artist to work through an RFQ, then you can embark on the journey of developing an idea with them. There are all kinds of wonderful ways to engage your community in the development of the idea for the mural and allow the story and identity of the place and people to be express through the art. Mural Arts Philadelphia is a shining example of public art created by and for the community; another wonderful group to discover is GoodSpace Murals out of Minneapolis. You can use your local artist in a community-driven process like this and create works of art that are meaningful and inclusive, and to which your community feels a deep connection. 

One of our projects was called Artist's Alley, and it involved 22 different artists with 22 separate small works. We measured the area, which was two buildings side by side and about 6 feet apart. We sectioned it off into 22 sections, and we put out a call to artists to submit their work. This was an all volunteer project with the materials donated, so none of the artists were paid. Because of the small space each artist painted and because the high quality materials were donated, that was acceptable. This was a fun, social opportunity to make a mark on our town together and it was possible to do in a short span of time. For large walls, we do not recommend using volunteers; there is too much margin for error and the scope of the project is definitely best left to professionals. And of course, this is a large time commitment and artists need to be appropriately compensated for their time. We told the volunteer artists their ideas had to be positive in content, but other than that, they had creative reign. We were very lucky that only 22 artists- all with fantastic sketches- submitted. We didn't have to turn anyone away. But, we had a small jury committee in place to make the selections in case we did need to choose. We required them to submit a sketch that would look pretty similar to what the painting would look like. After we had all 22 sketches, we selected 2 artists with a very good eye for design to lay the works out in order; they considered color, content and another elements in their choices.      

ZONING/CODES: In our town, we have a signage code that directs what is and is not allowed. Because the murals that we were painting exceeded the allowable dimensions of what you are allowed to paint on a building, it was necessary for us to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals to obtain a "Variance" from the code. You'll need to check out your local signage code and see if there are any ordinances against large signage, then ask your code enforcement official if the painting qualifies as signage. We first had to fill out a request for a hearing before the zoning board and wait 30 days for them to post it in the newspaper. Going before the zoning board was like being in front of a jury; a new experience for me the first time. It caused me to really articulate my plans because I had to present them formally. You'll want to have your plans and sketches ready to present to them. Over the course of time, as murals have become more common in our town, the zoning board decided that paintings without direct messaging or a “call to action,” were not subject to the signage code. They decided that, if someone wishes to paint a wall mural, they must bring their idea to the C.I.C., and that body gives approval and recommendations. There are several artists that sit on that committee, and we like to think of it as a body that provides creative assistance, not just a jury that rejects or approves an idea. 

WALL PREP: This step is extremely important for the longevity of your project. The wall should be repaired or patched if necessary to create as much of a smooth surface as possible. For brick or concrete surfaces, you'll need to pressure wash the surface and coat it with a prep material; we recommend TSP, Total Surface Prep. This prepares the wall to receive the paint and ensures that it will last. Then, you'll need to use a high quality exterior masonry sealer and primer. Golden Artist Colors is an expert in this field, and they recommended to us Sherwin Williams' Loxon line of primer and masonry dealer. They now make a sealer and primer in one. It is very thick and it will prime the surface right. If the bricks are crumbling or have lots of holes in them, one option that would be long lasting is stucco. Although somewhat pricey, that could be a long lasting repair that would be a very valuable improvement for the building owner. Another option is metal. One of our murals in town is painted or corrugated metal. Some artists have told me they very much prefer flat metal; others have said they don't mind either way. This is a lower cost option to creating a surface. If the owner is excited about the project, perhaps they would be wiling to invest on that improvement.     

CREATE! ​One thing to consider is timing. This can be tricky, especially if all the zoning meetings, permissions and funding require a lot of waiting. If you are up against the clock with the weather, this will require you to think on your feet and roll with the punches. There were many times when I was very eager to start and I had to wait a whole winter. Basically, once the temperature drops around October/November, you'll have to suspend work until the spring. There are some exceptions, but you'll need to consult the experts on the type of paint you're using. Sherwin Williams' will be at your disposal for advising throughout the course of your projects. I will say that, even as anxious as you are to get the projects going, it is always best to wait until the timing is right. It will be worth it in the long run!    


Once the mural is complete, it's time to honor those who worked to create it, and celebrate what it brings to the community. This is a wonderful chance to bring people together! Allow the artist to meet and greet, sign autographs, answer questions and take photos with guests. Consider serving refreshments and presenting a live music act to compliment the occasion. Explore with the artist the possibility of creating prints of the mural to sell; these would make great keepsakes and give people a connection to the art and artist. Invite media to attend, and make sure that anyone who helped make the project possible gets a personal invitation. Take a deep breath, pat yourself and your team on the back, and have a great time celebrating this accomplishment! 

If you have questions about this content or anything else related to public works of art, please comment below. If I don't know the answer I'll do my best to find someone who does!    

by Lori McKinney   
Creator and Community Organizer


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