Creating a Public Mural Program – Lessons from Kinston, NC (Part 2)

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Okra” by Seraphim Smith, a local artist in the program

This three-part blog post series chronicles the process, joys, and challenges of implementing a large-scale creative placemaking initiative, in this case the Downtown Kinston Mural Program in eastern North Carolina. The Part 1 post of this series reviewed the program design, citizen committee, and wall selection for the program. This blog post, Part 2, will review advertising the artist opportunity, selecting artists, pairing artists with walls, and developing the artist’s concepts for the program.

Advertising the Opportunity to Artists

The City of Kinston used a two-step process to select artists—a general Call for Artists through a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), and a Second Round Application focused on budget and program requirements. Kinston chose an (RFQ) to allow artists to present their prior work and community engagement practices instead of a potential mural concept. The artist consultant engaged by the City advised staff that concept development is a significant part of the artist’s work and should vary highly after the artist gets to know the community and the wall. An RFQ allowed the Mural Committee, the citizen-led group that oversaw the Downtown Mural program, to react to the artist and their existing portfolio, compensate the artist for their concept development during the program, and avoid boiler-plate concept submissions by artists who are (quite reasonably) unwilling to create a unique concept for a program without being paid.

The RFQ included:

  • Basic Information (goals, city profile, program timeline, selection committee, artist fee, etc.)
  • Artist Fee and Materials Provided (fee negotiable in range from $1,000 to $10,000 pending artist experience; artist fee included payment in-lieu of materials; City will provide equipment, insurance, and housing as needed; artists are expected to cover their own transportation and daily costs while in Kinston.)
  • Selection Criteria
  • Submission Materials (statement of interest, experience level, references, images of prior work, community engagement process, and option addition of resume and interest in a local apprentice, if any).

The RFQ application was made available online via the Submittable management software and on paper locally. After evaluating several options, the City chose Submittable, a paid service, for the following reasons:

  • User-friendly design for artists and committee members
  • Familiar website for experienced muralists who regularly search for opportunities
  • Forms that were easy to create and distribute
  • Storage for high-quality images
  • Tools to specify word length, mandatory questions, etc.
  • “Assignment” feature to break the submissions into manageable chunks for review
  • “Message” feature to send mass communications to all the applicants
“Kinston Strong” by Broderick Flanigan

To attract a group of applicants diverse in style, experience, demographics, and location, the City made a significant outreach effort over the two months the RFQ was open, including to local artists, state and county arts councils, state and regional art advocacy groups, national art organizations, and paid advertising spaces including Americans for the Arts and Jobs.Artsearch–a full list of organizations and contacts is available at this link. The extent of Kinston’s advertising paid off, and the program received 170 submissions: 13 International, 88 national, and 69 North Carolina artists. 23 artists were either living in Kinston or had a significant Kinston connection. 8 artists were inexperienced muralists.

Reviewing Artist Applications

The sheer number of applicants quickly exhausted the Selection Committee and changed the many criteria outlined in the application into one initial question to narrow down the pool—did you like the artist’s portfolio? This method relied heavily on the participation and diverse opinions of the Selection Committee, but after three meetings the 170 applications were reduced to 20, and these 20 were sent the second-round form. (Unfortunately, those three meetings of endless submission reviews also reduced the active participants on the Committee).

The Second-Round form focused on the practical aspects of the program—can the artist adhere to the program requirements, accept a fee within a given range, and offer 3 examples of prior budgets for similar projects? The Committee decided to select finalists without an interview, which expedited the process but also meant the Committee did not meet the artist or get to ask personalized questions until they arrived in Kinston.

Selecting Finalists

The Committee selected artists using the full selection criteria:

  • Interest and passion for creating a mural in Kinston.
  • Artistic accomplishment as demonstrated by images of previously completed artwork.
  • Technical competence and comparable scale of past works.
  • Demonstrated ability to collaborate with community stakeholders, if applicable.
  • Demonstrated ability to complete projects on time and within budget.
  • (Implied) Diverse group of artists with different styles, backgrounds, experience, and geography.
“Grow Old With Me” by LALA. Toronto, Canada

The Committee offered opportunities to 10 artists for 8 murals—an international pair, four national, and four local artists. Styles ranged from abstract graffiti to multi-dimensonalism/perspective art, to historical representations. Most artists had many years of experience and several large public murals, but one artist completed his first outdoor artist mural in the program. Unfortunately, the border closings due to COVID prevented the international pair from coming to Kinston and completing their mural, so the final program included 8 artists (with one local pair) completing 7 murals, including:

  1. Jared Bader, an artist who has been designing and painting murals since 2002, getting his start through the nationally famous Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. His art ranges from architectural re-creation to abstract concepts to figurative and historical painting.
  2. Jamil Burton and Maximillian Mozingo were an artist pair, both local fine artists and muralists whose styles range widely, from pop art cartoons to hyper-realistic figures and scenes.
  3. Broderick Flanigan is a painter, muralist, grassroots organizer, and owner of Flanigan’s Portrait Studio in his hometown of Athens, Georgia. Broderick has used his art career to expand access to public art in his community, including the creation of an art program for teens called HARPS, or Helping Art Reach Public Spaces, which introduces youth to the hands-on art-making process.
  4. Choci Gray is a local artist in Kinston that specializes fine art and multimedia; her style focuses on black history through a mixture of realistic figures and symbolism.
  5. Maxx Moses is an educator, community organizer, and graffiti-style artist based in San Diego, California. Maxx has created art all over the world, focusing on a blend of graffiti and fine art which he calls “Concrete Alchemy”. This merger of styles gave root to Maxx’s signature as an artist who sees the unity within the contrasts.
  6. Seraphim Smith is a local renaissance artist with talents in painting, food, design, and marketing. He is a Kinston SmART Artist, holds an art studio in Art105, and has helped many organizations tell their story and promote Kinston. This project was Seraphim’s first outdoor mural.
  7. Timothy Robert Smith is a Los Angeles oil painter, muralist and multi-media artist, using multiple perspectives to create murals that investigate the nature of
  8. Lacey Jane and Layla Folkmann (LALA) are an artist pair based out of Vancouver, Canada who specialize in large, photorealistic portraits of animals and people. Unfortunately, after COVID-19 began it wasn’t possible for them to come to the United States, and they were ultimately unable to participate in the program.

Concept Development

Once the artists were selected, they were paired with walls and a contract was negotiated between the artist, City, and wall owner. The committee paired artists with walls by matching the wall size and prominence of location to the artist’s usual fee per square foot, mural size, and art themes. The artist’s fee was based off the square footage of the wall and then negotiated based on the complexity of the concept and the artist’s experience level. In the contract, the artists were paid in three installments for the completion of the contract, mural concept, and the mural and engagement events. Artists were also given an additional payment for materials, while the City committed to providing an elevating equipment option, insurance, and housing as needed. Wall owners acknowledged the contract depended on their approval of the concept, and committed to keep the mural for at least five years if the concept was approved.

Section of the “Music Educators Mural” by Jared Bader featuring Thornton Canady

Once the artists were under contract, the Selection Committee scheduled meetings to develop the concepts. The concept development process was highly dependent on the artist’s style and experience; for example, muralist Maxx Moses’ style is improvisational—the Selection Committee asked for a general design, but then worked with the wall owner and Maxx to ensure the artist would have freedom to adapt his concept once he got to the wall. Another artist, Seraphim Smith, was selected specifically for his photo submissions of food—the Selection Committee wanted him to create a large-scale food mural, but gave him freedom to propose any type, color, or design he wanted.

The most difficult murals were the four which represented actual Kinstonians, past and present, from athletics, music, and our Civil Rights history. The Selection Committee had already committed to representing the Adkin High School Walkout (a protest organized by students to advocate for equal educational facilities) and Alice Hannibal (a Civil Rights and equal education advocate, as well as the first African American and woman Kinston City Council member). It was vital that the people and events represented in the murals be historically accurate, acknowledge the experience of the people who lived those events, and accessible to younger generations who may not know the stories of those Kinstonians.

For both of these murals, the Committee selected local, African American artists with experience representing black figures and engaging the community in their art. In the case of the artists who worked on the Adkin High School Walkout, the Committee connected them to the Adkin High Alumni Association and facilitated several conversations to tell the story of the walkout and offer feedback on the design from the community members closest to the event.

“Adkin High School Walkout” Eight Panel Series by Jamil Burton and Maximilian Mozingo

The other two murals with a historic theme were the murals representing Kinston’s obvious community assets–professional athletes and music educators. In both cases, the Committee facilitated “Artist-Community Conversations” which included 2-3 Selection Committee members who were passionate about the mural and 2-3 citizens with specific knowledge or interest in the topic; for example, the athletics mural included the former Parks and Recreation Director who had been part of youth athletics in Kinston for decades, as well as a former coach of high school basketball who had written a book collecting the names and accomplishments of Kinston’s professional athletes.

There were, of course, many challenges during concept development. Meeting virtually made gathering important community stakeholders challenging; public input required an average of three meetings which significantly slowed the timeline for artists arriving in Kinston. These meetings also revealed some unexpected developments from artists that had not been discussed during the selection process. One artist could only paint people based on exact photographs, which had not been stated in their application and required significant effort to find appropriate and available photo references; another artist brought an assistant who had not been mentioned up to that point, and could have required last minute changes to housing arrangements. Artists were also required to endure many meetings with the Committee and citizens to hear input, accept concept revisions, and manage often conflicting opinions—staff attempted to support artists as much as possible by coaching artists new to the public art process before community conversations, setting boundaries with the Committee on the number of revisions, and communicating, and sometimes defending, the decision process to the public.

In the end, the murals all came out beautifully and the Committee was proud of the program; public art will not make everyone happy, but it should generate meaningful discussion and add some beauty and color to the community’s space.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Requests for Qualification (RFQ) are good practice for art programs—they compensate the artist fairly relative to the level of effort required and attract lots of great applicants.
  2. Make your application form short and sweet—you’ll hopefully be reading a lot of them! Keep maximum word counts small (200-250) and where possible use the tools of your submission platform to ensure applicants put in all their information before they can submit.
  3. Advertising is worth the effort and small expense. Many arts councils and organizations link to the same places, so be sure to look for common opportunity lists and get your program on it.
  4. Artist selection is the hardest task for the committee and is exhausting. Keep a close eye on your committee for burn out, and be prepared to simplify the process if necessary.In hindsight, staff could have curated the number of artists brought before the Committee, or asked Committee members to do a yes/no vote on all the artists outside the meeting and only look at those with a certain number of “yes” votes.
  5. For historic murals, convene smaller groups of interested Committee members and community members with specific knowledge or experience to offer information and brainstorming support before the artist brings their concept to the larger group.
  6. Representing living public figures (or past figures with living family/representatives) requires walking a line between being sensitive to their desire to look their best and acknowledging that their importance as a public figure means their likeness is not always in their control. Always ask permission if using a photographer’s photo, and where possible use more flattering representations if they ask.
  7. You will not make everyone happy—draw a line at which you can stop asking for opinions, and then focus on justifying your decision-making process.

This is the 2nd post in a three-part series. Part 1 is available here. The next and final blog post in this series. will cover the City’s process for installation, community engagement, and budgeting.

This post was co-authored by Sarah Arney, Lead for NC Fellow with the City of Kinston, and Marcia Perritt, Associate Director with the UNC Development Finance Initiative.


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