How Public Art Happens: Part Two – Municipal Property

How Public Art Happens: Part 2 - Municipal Art, Portsmouth

Portsmouth NH is unlike any other city in New Hampshire because of its history and art culture, driving visitors from all over the world. As residents, creatives, workers, artists, visitors and tourists of this historic seacoast city, we are lucky to have access to a culture that is so often sought out because of its public art.

Art-Speak was founded to “promote appreciation, awareness, participation and dialogue in support of the invaluable contribution that arts, culture and history makes to our city’s vitality and quality of life” and support Portsmouth as a cultural destination for travelers from all around the world to come visit. What makes this city a cultural destination is the art that it thrives on, like the murals, the sculptures, the Art Walk, the Prescott Park Art Festival, and so much more.

Part of our job is to educate the community on how to support the culture surrounding us. To help with this goal, we created the How Public Art Happens blog series. Part One “A Private-Public Art Partnership Model,” published back in 2016 was on The Music Hall’s proposal. Now, two years later, look where we are: a beautiful new marquee and streets cape, with an arch on its way!


As we mentioned in Part One, making art happen, in any form, is a lengthy process. Part Two of How Public Art Happens is focused on the Municipal Property portion of public art.

Let’s break this down to the basics. Art on municipal property means it’s owned by Portsmouth and is a direct reflection of the city and its soul. In order to get the rights to use the municipal property as a canvas, whether it be an expansion to a building, a new sign, a live performance, street art, etc., there are a few things that need to be discussed before anything is brought to the drawing board.

How is the art chosen?

First, a commission for art has to be proposed. For example, to get the The Music Hall beautification process rolling, a proposal was submitted through the Public Art process, which is a set of rules that we helped create and follow for every proposed municipal project.

Part of this Public Art Process is establishing a project planning committee consisting of the talents needed to execute the proposal, to talk about the where, when, and how of the project. The committee then plans a series of public forums to include the people’s voice in creating the inspiration behind the art. The public forums are so valuable in supporting the balance between the community and the artist.

Once the details are defined, a submission process begins through a “Request for Proposals.” (or RFP). Each submission is reviewed by the same committee who selects a final work (or works) which is then approved by  the city council. From there…it begins!

How is the art being funded?

Public Art projects are city property and are purchased and maintained by public money. However, there are alternative sources of funding for Public Art that are as varied as the art-forms themselves, depending on the nature of the project. Some community funding has resulted in live performances like the ones you might see on the North Church steps, or the Portsmouth Memorial Park that was spearheaded by the Teetzels. The more community support there is behind a creative endeavor, the easier the process becomes because the city and the artist will have all the resources they need.

Another source of funding is the city contributing to raise funds by earmarking sources that commemorate people or topics of special public importance. A good example of this would be the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Goodwin Park.

Additionally, in the state of New Hampshire, we have and ordinance called Percent for Art, which helps fund statewide projects. However, Portsmouth is the only municipality that has adopted this type of ordinance as a city, which was established in 2006. The ordinance allocates one percent of the total budget of municipal capital improvement projects for Public Art.

What is the upkeep? Is it safe?

Another consideration that the public art committees have to review when deciding on commissioned submissions is the upkeep and safety of the art. If it’s a mural the upkeep is minimal. However, for sculptures and statues, memorials, etc. there has to be a conversation about the access, safety, and everyday care that has to happen because they are typically in areas that the public can travel on freely. So, safety is also a concern.

For example, a sculpture with sharp edges that is sturdy enough to climb is not going to be approved in a park for children to climb on. However, what you will see is a climbable whale in the park that is low to the ground in case a child (or a spirited adult) falls off.

Have you climbed onto the whale in Prescott before? Us too.

If you have questions or want to know more information about public art on municipal property, reach out to us at Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see what our Portsmouth artists are up to!


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