To Engage or Not To Engage : The artist in civic life

Artists Must Be Paid

I live my life by this rule. I spend dozens of hours a week raising money for the Creative City Project and our annual performing and installation arts event, IMMERSE. Almost all the $240,000 we will raise in 2017 will go to pay artists and facilitate their performances (through the rental of stages, lights, sound, effects, and supplies). 

In the last two months, I've advocated for artist payment in 4 separate instances in which calls to artists have been put out by government or private entities. 

I care about artists making a living from what they do, and I work hard to fight for that. 

But Maybe There Are RARE Examples of When There's a Different Model

And when I say "RARE" I mean "RARE." And I think the City of Orlando's Flag Redesign process is one of those rare cases. Here's a glimpse into why I think that. 

Valuing Artists and Designers

Most often, when artists aren't paid, it's because people want something for free. They want art in their space but they aren't willing to pay for it. 

ARTISTS MUST BE VALUED, and payment conveys value. 

I think some from the Orlando design community have interpreted the decision to make this flag process an open call to the public and not paying for the design work as not valuing designers. And, since nothing else has been publically communicated, that perspective makes total sense. But there actually was thought behind the decision. 

An Intentional Decision

In my communication with various decision makers, this is what I've come to learn of the process. 

  • Research and engagement

The staff and office overseeing the process consulted with several other municipalities who had conducted flag redesigns, and took into account what they had learned from those processes -- specifically around public engagement and process. 

Roman Mars' TED talk is a good front facing tool for the public, so you'll find that video on the city's flag page. It is posted in an attempt to give the public some resources to better understand a few flag design principles. 

The ideas Roman talks about are from the North American Vexillological Association. City staff consulted with that office, and one of their reps sits in the committee. 

In an attempt to engage the design community well, there was a rep from the Orlando chapter of AIGA on the committee who ended up opting out. Another professional designer and agency owner remained on the committee. 

  • The Decision

After this research and engagement, the city decided to not do a formal RFP or to hire a single designer. Why? Because, in addition to having a well designed flag, public engagement was a top priority. And only engaging the services of a single designer through a formal B2B process seemed antithetical to engaging the public. 

I haven't heard anyone at the city say this, but here's how I've come to feel about it. 

This flag isn't something the city (as a governmental agency) will own. It's something we (as the people of the city) will own. To have made this a business transaction feels a little to corporate for what this thing will be communally.

Call me a socialist or something, but I see how making this a product of the people is meaningful.

And that leads me to address a criticism.

Design By Committee vs Professional Artists

One of the criticisms of the resulting process was that the flag was "designed by committee." And I can assure you that nothing of the sort happened. In fact, as one of the members of this panel, I sat around a boardroom table and personally said several times, "We're not designers, so I think the artist should make that decision."

So what role did the committee and public's voices play?

Feedback from the committee and the open public voting period was taken into consideration. But all the changes that took place were done by the artists. 

For example, "the lines inside the circle look like a Star Wars villain" comments about one design. 

I asked the designer of this flag if he had seen that. His response was, "Ha. Not initially. But once people started talking about it, I did."

Another popular public critique was that the fountain in one of the flags looked like a whale's tail. 

All four of the designers of the finalist flags spent 5 hours at city hall on Wednesday working on edits they found appropriate and helpful as a result of public comment. 

Professional Artists In the Process

And we can all rest assured that professional artists did participate in this process. The design attached to this article was created by the owner of an agency. Another one of the finalist flags was created by a professional illustrator. And I still don't know anything about the identities of two of the other creators (because, unless the designers themselves have spoken publicly, their identities have been kept secret thus far). 

The RFP Problem

There's a well proclaimed opinion that the city should have put out a Request For Proposals and hired a single artist to make the new flag. 

Having gone through this process, I can honestly say that I think that would have been the wrong decision. 

  • An RFP wouldn't have curbed criticism. 

If an artist had been acquired via an RFP process, the design community would have still criticized whatever design the artist came back with (take the Orlando City Soccer logo process as an example). And, for sure, the public at large would have as well. 

Take the valid "whale" and "star wars" comments regarding two of the current finalists. If a flag would have been made by an artist, approved by a board of 10, and revealed to the public, those criticisms would have happened AFTER the flag had been finalized. 

  • An RFP wouldn't be the only way to engage professionals 

I totally get why a designer would opt out of this process. And I absolutely respect that. However, there are lots of designers who opted in. And that's great too. Professional artists are represented in the four finalists. 

  • The community would have not been engaged well.

While our city and its people MUST value the creative class if we're to grow and thrive, I don't think that's the only objective of this Flag Re-design process. I think city staff have a high value for engaging the public through the process. And that's, ultimately, why I think the intentional decision was made to do this the way it was done. 

And, as a result, the public has been engaged in a significant way : design submissions, public voting, feedback, and now the four finalists will be printed as flags and go on tour throughout the city so we can all see them in action. During this final phase, the public will have one final opportunity for comment. 

What I would do differently

There are some things that could have made this process a little better. Here's what I would have done differently. 

1. Engaged the design community first. 

There are regular gatherings of design professionals. I would have engaged them in conversation, asked their opinion, garnered their support, and conveyed the vision and objective. This directly touches their profession. They should be a top priority.

We have a generous design community. They regularly contribute to causes and offer their talents in service to bigger causes. I think the Flag Redesign could have been one of those things if the process have gone differently. 

Unfortunately, it seemed to start adversarially, and – as a result – seemed to ostracize many. 

2. Offered payment to the winning flag designer. 

I understand not going the RFP route. It cuts out community involvement. But I don't think offering payment to the winning designer would have prevented the community from engaging from the get-go. 

I'm not sure if offering a payment to the finalist would have changed any of the criticism from the design community. I think it would have only changed the criticism in the direction of "spec work." But I do think it would be nice to offer some payment to the designer of the final selection. 

So What Do We Do Now?

  • We keep on doing what we're doing -- with better communication. 

I know our city puts out calls to designers on a regular basis. I know designers and artists are valued. And I know each of us reading this knows and believes in the central importance of creativity in shaping a city. We need to communicate that regularly through our words and actions.

  • Let's keep fighting to pay artists what they're worth. 
  • Let's keep making awesome things. 
  • Let's define when and what we want to donate our time to... because I think we're ALL better off when that's part of our lives.

And if you care about this flag process, keep your eyes open for when they go on tour, and let's get the best one to represent us.