Commissions - an introduction
Free taster of subscriber-only material in the Commissions section. Fully updated for 2008.
Artists have been commissioned to make work for individual clients, organisations and sites for centuries. Now, there is a wide scope of commission opportunities for artists who work in a variety of ways and media, and who are at all stages of their careers. As Su Jones points out According to a-n research some twenty-four percent of work openly on offer to visual artists in the UK is for public and community projects. Public art commissions made up twelve percent of the volume or twenty-three percent of the overall value of work provided between 2003-05. Not only do commissions offer viable income streams to artists, from larger and more varied sources of finance than grant-giving bodies, they also provide opportunities to work on a larger scale, with new materials, new partners and collaborators. However, these additional factors mean that artists have to extend their skills of negotiation, good communication and integrity as they work with a number of different parties and stakeholders who all have their own agendas.
Artworks can be commissioned in a range of ways and by a number of different people. This section focuses on the breadth of practice in the UK, including permanent and temporary commissioned work, functional artworks, site-specific works, time-based and process-based work. It highlights some of the organisations and bodies that support the production of new artwork through commission opportunities.
Public organisations and groups, both locally and regionally, commission art as part of strategies for inclusion of art within new building, development and regeneration projects. The budget set aside for art commissions is usually earmarked specifically for art projects by funding initiatives such as Percent for Art, Section 106 Planning Regulations as well as Lottery, Heritage, Millennium and government regeneration funding schemes. This means that contrary to the well-used tabloid line the money should have been used on hospital beds instead of art the art budget can only be spent on art.
Many councils such as Kent, Essex, Bristol, Sheffield and Preston have active public art programmes. They usually have a public arts officer who is responsible for implementing public art strategies and realising projects in a variety of sites throughout the urban and rural environment, eg public spaces and buildings, parks and highways. These are often part of very large-scale and long-term initiatives.
Both Essex and Kent County Councils are involved in substantial public art programmes that are linked to the long-term development, and impact, of the Thames Gateway and the Sustainable Communities Plan which aim to deliver sustainable communities and housing supplies in both urban and rural areas.
Sheffield City Councils The Heart of the City project is part of a master plan for the whole city centre, including construction of new Council offices, as well as commercial development. Artists have been commissioned to make new work in many of the public squares including Rain by Colin Rose in Millennium Square.
Private companies, such as British Airports Authorities, BBC, Berkeley Homes, Land Securities and Hammerson, commission art work in a similar manner to councils. Projects are often attached to a new building development, or refurbishment. These can include iconic standalone works such as Jaume Plensas Breathing that is dedicated to news journalists killed on assignment. It sits on top of Broadcasting House and projects a beam of light one kilometre into the night sky for thirty minutes each night to coincide with the BBCs ten oclock news bulletin. Alternatively, works can be more integrated into the fabric of a public space.
Commissioning agencies such as Public Art South West, Commissions East, Commissions North and Safle (formerly Cywaith Cymru:Artworks Wales) act as independent advisory companies to their regional and national arts councils (Arts Council England and the Arts Council of Wales respectively). They instigate, oversee and promote commissioned work in their region, and also engage in research and development of best practice. In addition, independent public commission agencies such as Modus Operandi, InSite Arts, and Art in Partnership work for a range of public and private clients and seek to work with a wide portfolio of artists.
Artists research, engage and make work for the public realm in a wide range of ways and employ a variety of skills and processes. Whilst some artists are commissioned to make largescale permanent, more sculptural works in the public domain, others are employed as catalysts to stimulate dialogue and discussion.
Gavin Hodson, Public Art Manager at Essex County Council, identifies some approaches that artists need to have:
commit to long term projects;
understand working in partnerships;
deliver high quality work;
share your passion of creativity;
show others that its OK to think differently and view problems from a different perspective in order to gain fantastic results;
enjoy what you do.
The term lead artist is now often employed in commission briefs and implies that the commissioner is looking for an artist with a track record in their field. It can be a fairly catch-all phrase that implies involvement of other individuals such as artists, designers, professionals and community groups in the project.
In addition, artists are also being commissioned as curators of usually temporary programmes of works and interventions. Bob & Roberta Smith recently curated Art U Need a series of interactions and events in South East Essex in 2007. The works ranged from The Rendezvous Club a walking club set up by Lucy Harrison, to a calendar of events Art U Need Needs U by Andrea Mason in the Northlands Estate, Basildon.
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Jane Watt is Advisers and tutors online editor and an artist. She was Knowledge bank commissions coordinator between 2008-09.
First published: a-n.co.uk September 2008
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