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Mockup of ≈7,400 square foot public artwork, The Time is Ours, on side of Madison Metro Transit System building, version 1 from 2022. The artwork consists of a hand-painted mural and fabricated aluminum CNC-cut shapes installed over the wall.

Madison Metro Update: How can our cities support public artists?

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Dear friends, I have tentative good news for the Madison Metro Project following the Madison Arts Commission (MAC) meeting yesterday. Thank you to everyone who emailed, attended the meeting, and demonstrated support for artist-friendly solutions to move the Metro project forward. Thank you also to MAC Commissioners who listened to me and made a thoughtful recommendation that supports my needs for this project.

I am still waiting for confirmation from City staff on steps moving forward. In the meantime, here’s how things went in the meeting.

A summary of MAC’s recommendation

MAC recommended the creation of a Purchasing Order of $9,975 to be paid immediately so that I can meet with City staff and begin creating an updated proposal, scope, and budget for the Madison Metro art project.

  • This Purchasing Order is to be based on my business hourly rate of $175 for a total of 57 hours.
  • My updated proposal, scope, and budget will be based on what’s realistic for a project that will now be completed in 2026, after two delays.

What was discussed in the meeting?

  • Scale vs budget: City staff created a presentation based on my solutions flowchart. This is good. However, they didn’t share it with me prior to presenting it to MAC to double-check its feasibility. City staff’s recommendations included an expectation for the project to remain both “the original scale and original budget.” This is impossible. Labor, materials, etc. will all increase in the four years since I created the original proposal.
  • Contract delays: According to City staff, delays to the contract resulted in part because I asked for revisions. Revisions are part of a normal negotiation process. It is unfair to expect artists to sign contracts without changes. Perhaps big corporate public art factories don’t have an issue with signing problematic documents, because they have the overhead to absorb the risks. But if cities want to work with individual artists, then the contracting terms need to support artists.
  • “Past precedents”: The City of Madison often relies on whether there’s a past precedent for an action they are asked to take. However, this is the first Percent for Art project, so the Metro project will set the precedent. Additionally, in the context of post-2020 equity and justice conversations, it is worth evaluating whether current municipal processes support equitable outcomes.
  • “Costs of doing business”: I asked the City to reimburse me for $5,705 of costs incurred. The City says these are the “cost of doing business” and that there is no “past precedent” for covering these costs. However, as community members pointed out at the MAC meeting, there is a point when something is no longer a reasonable cost of doing business. As of now, there isn’t a concrete solution for my costs incurred.
  • Threats of budget cuts: This is used as a pressure point on the project, to keep the artist (me) accountable to the City’s expectations and to keep people afraid that we could lose this money. It is worth noting that according to the City’s Percent for Art Ordinance, the City is legally required to spend this money on public art.
Flowchart of solutions created by Jenie Gao.

Questions & Answers

  • Will the art get smaller? Most likely, yes. It is unlikely the budget for this project will get bigger, so that means the art needs to get smaller. I will do my best to honor the integrity of the original project, and it will still be a major piece of the visual landscape even at a reduced size.
  • What is your business hourly rate based on? Small businesses need to consider all costs associated with business operations. A business’ hourly rate needs to cover utilities, workspace, materials, technology, marketing, healthcare, insurance, staffing, and the salary of the business owner. I have kept a time sheet since 2017, so I have excellent data on how I use my time.
  • Is there anything else we can do to help? Keep in touch and stay informed about the use of public funds! People emailed incredible, astute comments to MAC about institutional accountability, equity for artists of color, and artwork that genuinely represents the community. Public entities should serve the public, and you’ve all done a great job of asserting this.

The Ethos of Public Art

City processes are complicated, and it is easy for them to overwhelm conversations about the art itself.

But this protracted experience with City of Madison begets the question, what kind of public art process supports the art we want to see in our communities? What kind of process supports: Art that genuinely reflects the diversity and values of people who live here? Art that takes creative risks? Art that can sustain the livelihoods of the people who create it?

As is, the City of Madison contracting process is best suited for big, corporate public art factories that may not care what the contract says. Corporate art factories manufacture art at volume, so they can absorb potential losses. The City of Madison has also struggled with timeliness, which limits their ability to support the production an outdoor mural. They have changed plans last minute twice, costing my vendors and me income two summers in a row. Wisconsin has a narrow outdoor production season and a long winter. Once it gets cold, paint will not cure on the wall.

But if the City cannot meet weather-based constraints, then it suggests that the City is best geared towards materials like vinyl, or art that does not require the artist’s hand in the production process. It is worth noting that of the four finalists for this project, I was the only one who proposed fabricating the work myself.

Now that City staff know they can buy a hand-painted mural for their money, that’s what they want. The question remains, will they adjust their processes to support this kind of art-making?

Public feedback is also clear. People want meaningful public art that reflects their communities. People also care deeply about who gets to contribute to the cultural landscape of their cities.

While this process has been far from ideal, I hope my transparency can help all of us in the long-term. I hope the City can see the high level of public attention as a positive thing. Here, the community is providing proof of how much they care, not only about my project, but about the cultural ethos of the public art we bring into this city.

Watch the full Madison Arts Commission meeting: Discussion for Metro starts at 23:26

Read my full testimony to MAC on April 4, 2023: Jenie Gao’s public testimony

Community Feedback on the Madison Metro Public Art Project:

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