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Comic: When a “public art” call is a bad deal

T.L. Luke breaks down the finances and ethics of the “Vibrant Hydrant” project.

T.L. Luke breaks down the finances and ethics of the “Vibrant Hydrant” project.

Editor’s note: In March, a private non-profit organization called the Madison Public Art Project announced that it wanted to commission 15 local artists to paint their designs on fire hydrants in Monona. Dubbed “Vibrant Hydrant,” the project is timed for a September rollout in commemoration of the 9/11 attacks. MPAP is offering to pay each artist selected $300, and to cover the cost of materials. 

Amid the Madison arts and culture community’s ongoing push for better pay, better policy, and more transparency from public, for-profit, and non-profit arts players alike, MPAP’s offer is not sitting well with some artists. The artists balking at the proposal point out that $300 isn’t really fair compensation for the amount of work MPAP is asking for. MPAP’s call for artists asks artists to provide a design, make a site visit before installation, work on preparing the hydrant (this involves sanding, cleaning, and primer), do the actual painting/installation, and participate in talks and other events tied to the project.

One artist who’s vocally criticized the Vibrant Hydrant project is T.L. Luke, who expressed her objections this week in comics form. We are republishing the comic here. In an Instagram post accompanying the comic, Luke also writes that Vibrant Hydrant “has more expectations than $5k projects I’ve done IN MADISON,” and suggests that MPAP scale back its expectations of participating artists, as well as commissioning fewer artists overall and paying each more. Luke also argues that it’s inappropriate for MPAP to ask for a full design proposal at the initial application stage. 

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Founded in 2020, MPAP is not itself an actual public art arm of any local government agency, though it has collaborated with local government organizations including the City of Monona, Dane Arts, the UW-Madison Arboretum, and the Madison Public Library. However, in all fairness, public-art projects are often very much a private-public affair, relying heavily on private donors and partnerships between government and private entities. As a 501(c)(3), MPAP does have to file some publicly available paperwork, but it’s not subject to the same level of transparency as a unit of government.

Madison arts non-profit Communication (full disclosure: Communication is Tone Madison‘s fiscal receiver and partner organization) also posted on Instagram about the project, recommending that artists not apply for the MPAP project and stating that the proposal “devalues the labor of every artist in our community.”

UPDATE: On Thursday night, MPAP president Jillian Talarczyk told Tone Madison that it was changing some of the terms of the hydrant project: “We are working to secure additional project funding and have increased the artist payment to $400 for up to 11 hydrants.” Talarczyk also says MPAP will bring in a company to prime the hydrants, and is “currently seeking volunteers who would like to help with the additional priming, support the painting days, and painting logistics of this project.” Additionally, a private donor has now contributed $7,000 to support the project, Talarczyk says.

When the Vibrant Hydrant project’s call for artists initially went out, it stated that participating artists would need to “Attend a minimum of one (1) site visit prior to installation to prepare & prime the hydrants.” This implied that the artists themselves would be expected to prepare and prime the hydrants. Talarczyk disputes this, telling Tone Madison that it was “always the plan to have a contractor” do that part of the work, and that at the time she wrote the initial call, she did not yet have a specific contractor lined up. “I wanted to give the artists enough time to see the project and apply, initially, so I wrote the call for what was true at the time planning to update it as our fundraising continued,” Talarczyk says. “Projects of this scope change frequently as there are so many moving parts.”

The initial “site visit prior to installation to prepare & prime the hydrants” language was included in materials MPAP shared with the City of Monona while planning the project. It was also included in the call for artists MPAP began circulating publicly in March. To our knowledge, this language was not removed until after T.L. Luke’s comic about the project went up on June 2.

In other words, Luke’s comic accurately reflected and reasonably interpreted the project terms MPAP itself was sharing with the public for several months—what was true at the time, if you will. We stand by Luke’s work and our decision to publish it.

—Scott Gordon

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