If you build it, they will come. But what happens if you don’t pay the designer what they want?
Per Downtown Lansing Inc.’s request for proposals, the parking ramp at 219 N. Grand Ave. is slated to have the wallscape of its elevator shaft become a public art installation — the chosen proposal providing the basis of a vinyl covering that will wrap the structure.
But disputes over the original graphic designer fee — a $1,000 payment for project with a budget of $25,000 — turned the request for proposals into a social media controversy.
Dissenting artists argued the initial compensation for the design, which has since been bumped to $3,000, was inadequate.
The original request for proposals listed that Downtown Lansing Inc. was putting up $3,000 of its own funds and using $22,000 total in grants: $10,000 from LEAP’s Public Art in Communities grant and $12,000 from the City of Lansing Parking Office.
The money was originally allocated as follows: $24,000 to Okemos’ Skyline Outdoor Advertising for installation expenses and $1,000 — 4 percent of the original total budget — to the designer, who will not be responsible for the execution.
But this did not sit well. “Everyone but the artist is being paid fairly. The amount of time, resources and effort involved to get this done will take far more than $1,000 to accomplish,” read a Facebook post by Lansing printmaker Kimberly Lavon, in response to the original designer fee. “The buck stops here. Pay the artists in this town fairly for their work!” The ensuing comment thread included remarks from both city officials and figures from the Lansing art community.
Debbie Mikula, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, left some comments offering transparency, and Mayor Andy Schor wrote: “I was not a part of this process, see the responses below from Debbie. If this isn’t enough for the artists, then I assume no one will apply.”
The alleged lowball $1,000 offer was revised after Downtown Lansing Inc. saw the response from Lansing’s art community — raising its board’s contribution from $3,000 to $5,000 in order to raise the designer fee.
Via email, Mindy Biladeau, executive director of Downtown Lansing Inc., told City Pulse: “We unintentionally made some artists in our community feel devalued. Lansing’s art community is important to us, and we don’t want anyone to feel that their time, energy and creativity is unappreciated, because it is very much appreciated.”
Where did that original total of $1,000 come from, and what were the origins of the project?
According to Mikula, a member of Downtown Lansing Inc.’s design committee, the wallscape project was initially proposed in 2016, as one of many pitches for the $75,000 Lansing Arts Impact Project grant.
The original idea, based on similar installations in Detroit, was to wrap the entire parking structure. Upon learning the cost was too great, the proposal was scaled back to only adorn the walls of the elevator shaft, said Mikula.
Mikula said the project did not follow the path of a typical piece of public art. Price estimates for the installation had already been sought before the idea to request submissions from local artists came about, she explained.
“It came from two years talking about wrapping the parking garage entirely. It was totally out of our budget range,” Mikula said. “Sitting around the table, we thought it was possible to get a budget of $25,000.”
“My perspective was, ‘Let’s put this out further than just in-house graphic designers, and give our artists an opportunity to apply as well,’” she said.
According to Mikula, the $1,000 graphic designer fee was determined by Skyline Outdoor Advertising’s typical price point for its in-house designers.
But Jessy Gregg, who serves on the East Lansing Arts Commission, pointed out the difference between working as an independent artist and an in-house designer for a company. She stated that without the benefits usually associated with a fulltime job, independent artists incur more costs and need to charge a higher fee.
META Collective co-owner Greg Zivic said he reaffirmed a similar point in an email to Downtown Lansing, Inc.
“I said in my email, ‘What you’re not thinking about, is that an artist, with a consistent body of work with a message that people know and recognize, has their own intrinsic value. It’s not the same as hiring a member of a design team.’” Zivic said Downtown Lansing Inc. was responsive to his constructive criticism and praised it for raising the graphic designer fee, referring to it as “very commendable.”
“We listened to all of the conversation that happened and took a little bit of time to come back with a new proposal,” Mikula said. “It was based on some of the constructive answers to the question, ‘How do you factor what you’re worth, what’s your value?’ Because everybody is so different, it’s hard to come up with that number.”
The new fee of $3,000 — little over 11 percent of the total budget, now $27,000 — is within the industry standard for the Lansing/East Lansing Metropolitan Statistical Area, according to Downtown Lansing Inc.’s revised request for proposals.
Another change in the revision says that firms outside of Skyline Outdoor Advertising will be consulted for price estimates, in accordance with the City of Lansing purchasing guidelines.
But artists like Lavon, though appreciating the gesture, still feel the increase isn’t enough and there’s a systemic problem left to be solved.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still not enough. I understand this area has a certain price point for its creatives, but that price point also needs to rise,” Lavon said. “If they are going to stick to the triedand-true of what artists are used to being paid, then the talent will continue to leave this town.”