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Mircea Cantor, 'The Need for Uncertainty", installation view at Museum Art Oxford, 2008. Commissioned by MAO, Arnolfini, Bristol and Camden Arts Centre, London as part of the 3 Series: 3 Artists / 3 Spaces / 3 Years

The commissioning of contemporary art by public galleries and museums is an activity growing at an unprecedented rate; indeed more has been commissioned in the past 15 years than in all of the previous century.

It is a phenomenon that has been propelled by several factors: the fame, notoriety and public appreciation of landmark works such as Anthony Gormley’s gargantuan ‘Angel of the North’, 1998, a sculpture that has inspired other high-visibility projects throughout Britain.

Then there is the huge success of high-profile public gallery commissions such as Tate Modern’s Unilever Series that for the past eight years has afforded each of the annually invited artists the opportunity to engage with the impressive, if not intimidating, space of Tate’s Turbine Hall, and helped to draw an unparalleled number of visitors—Tate Modern currently receives around five million a year, double the number the building was designed for.

Yet another factor is the public’s desire to participate in popular debate concerning the role of contemporary public art and what happens when it interacts with long-established British tradition and celebrated monument, as in the example of the Fourth Plinth Commission in London’s Trafalgar Square.

None of this would be possible without funding, not that this is the barrier to burgeoning creativity it might have once been—cities and towns are finding increasingly that public art attracts money and are responding accordingly.

Ai Weiwei and Fake Studio, 'Working Progress (Fountain of Light)', 2007, mixed media light, installation. 
Ai Weiwei and Fake Studio, 'Working Progress (Fountain of Light)', 2007, mixed media light, installation.

So, while it is undoubtedly true that ‘high street’ homogenisation is still with us, there are a growing number of idiosyncrasies and new art initiatives, popping up and creating new ways for the public to engage with contemporary art. The development of public art which took new work out of the museum and into urban spaces initiated this process. Areas became branded ‘sites of regeneration’, streets and shopping centres were targeted, communities welcomed the actions of artists. And it would seem that this phenomenon is as linked to the process of devolution and a growing regional assertiveness, as it is to the philanthropic gestures of big corporations that decide to commission public sculpture close to their corporate towers. Whatever the case, contemporary art is increasingly visible outside, attracting attention, interaction and even affection.

Laurence Sillars, curator of exhibitions at Tate Liverpool comments, ‘Commissions within or beyond the gallery are enormously effective in reaching new audiences and making art visible to those who may not normally encounter it, particularly when part of a series or ongoing programme, to provide a framework, history and sense of anticipation not always possible with stand-alone projects.

‘Using the specifics of an exhibition or a public space, numerous commissions of recent years have attracted widespread media attention nationally and internationally—consciousness—Richard Wilson’s ‘Turning the Place Over’ in Liverpool has 500,000+ views on youtube alone. Exhibitions or collection purchases seldom reach out as far.’

Sillars goes on to point out, ‘It’s important for museums to push beyond their walls, commissioning artists to make work in the cities in which they are based to expand the accessibility and visibility of their programmes—Tate Liverpool’s recent commission of Ai Weiwei’s ‘Working Progress (Fountain of Light)’, 2007, installed in the Albert Dock is an example, and something we will be doing a lot more of in the future. It’s increasingly common for new museums to commission something as part of their construction, integrating institution and context as with Richard Wentworth and the New Art Gallery Walsall. These works have resulted in thousands of encounters with those who may not even step inside our buildings.’

Mike Nelson, 'Untitled No. 22 (High Plains Drifter)' 1993/2001/2008, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. This commission was supported by the Esmee Fairbain Foundation, which is enabling the gallery to commission six British artists over four y
Mike Nelson, 'Untitled No. 22 (High Plains Drifter)' 1993/2001/2008, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. This commission was supported by the Esmee Fairbain Foundation, which is enabling the gallery to commission six British artists over four years. Mike Nelson, Christine Borland and Alex Hartley are the first three.

Sillars is right about contemporary public art attracting big numbers. Returning to the ‘Angel of the North’ as an example, it’s been estimated that it is seen by more than one person every second—33 million people every year. But public art commissions are not all about numbers. Within the context of the museum or gallery, art can be commissioned that might not otherwise come into being.

Nigel Prince, senior curator at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, explains, ‘At Ikon we often make new commissions with artists as an intrinsic aspect in the development of a new exhibition. As appropriate, we can adopt the role of a production house/facilitator, often working in collaboration with other venues/organisations—gaining access to particular fabricators, workshops, spaces etc. Often this may occur when the show becomes an opportunity for an artist to realise a work that otherwise might be prohibitive in terms of cost, assistance with technical production etc, or the potential to make an intervention in a place otherwise difficult to access. Such ideas often grow quite naturally out of the development process.’

Suzanne Cotter, senior curator at Modern Art Oxford affirms this. She argues: ‘Public institutions are much more aware of their role as producers, especially considering the number of exhibitions that are authored today and the increasing number of events such as biennials. There is also the awareness that important collections can and should exist outside London; the desire to work towards creating a much bigger landscape that spreads throughout Britain—an awareness of legacy for people in the future.’ Cotter describes an institution such as Modern Art Oxford, that doesn’t have its own collection as, ‘A crucial part of the chain in the creation and journey of a new work.’

Nedko Solakov, 'A BG Bar', 2006, metal, paints, oak wood, refrigerator, glasses, non-alcoholic beverages, white permanent felt-tip pen, texts and drawings over black painted metal. Solakov is currently working with Whitechapel Gallery on The Street projec
Nedko Solakov, 'A BG Bar', 2006, metal, paints, oak wood, refrigerator, glasses, non-alcoholic beverages, white permanent felt-tip pen, texts and drawings over black painted metal. Solakov is currently working with Whitechapel Gallery on The Street project

In essence, the process that occurs is as follows—a piece commissioned by a particular museum, thanks to the funds it has secured from a given body or bodies, offers the artist an opportunity to work. The result is ‘owned’ by the artist, but after the duration of the show, can then be gifted to another institution that possesses a public collection—perhaps within the same region as the ‘producing’ museum. Thus, an effective production/collection strategy is established within a region. Prince explains, ‘So long as the process is accompanied by intelligent, integrated thinking… and clear and considered reflection… [there is] the potential for these enabled major works to find their way into museum collections as a follow on that would be of benefit to artists, galleries, museums and audiences.’

This opportunity to rise to the challenge of a demanding public space or project can be of great help to an artist’s development and career, for as Sillars explains, ‘Commissions often give artists an opportunity to take creative risks—facilitating the production of a new kind of work through new contexts, institutional parameters and of course funding. To accept a commission is generally to accept a specific situation —a building, a budget, a requirement of an exhibition or organisation. Sometimes these things—which while of course can be seen as restrictions—result in artists departing from their established practices and making creative leaps in the production of new work.’

One curator recently joked, ‘It was about time curators banded together to start a revolution against the over-commercialisation of contemporary art and develop a union that works together to ensure the continuation of the production of serious art that isn’t market-driven.’ In view of this loaded comment perhaps we could even go so far as to argue that the increase in public commissions might be perceived as an effective anti-art market strategy designed to sidestep the increasingly powerful private collectors and commercial galleries and ensure that, through teaming up with other ‘collecting’ institutions art can be made to exist outside of the market?

But this is perhaps an unrealistic possibility in the current contemporary art climate—a museum commission lends an artist’s work added value, a fact not missed by collectors, auction houses and commercial galleries. In this sense, the market can never be escaped.

The public commission though is particularly vital to conceptual artists whose work is more ephemeral. As with a residency it provides them with a means of making a living. The artists are paid for their work (even though it might be less than what the market itself might offer) and enjoy reputation enhancement.

Fiona Bradley, director of The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, comments, ‘Commissioning is a crucial part of The Fruitmarket Gallery’s mission, and although we are not core-funded to do this, we have been fortunate in recent years to receive help from commercial sponsors Bloomberg, and from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, to enable us to support artists to make new work. Commissioning new work helps artists to develop and realise ideas, and audiences to access and understand the creative process. If commissioning can be linked to collecting (we have been particularly pleased that two of our recent commissions have been acquired by major Scottish collections), then so much the better.’

Patrick Lears' view of Wentworth Street, the location of Whitechapel Gallery commission project, The Street
Patrick Lears' view of Wentworth Street, the location of Whitechapel Gallery commission project, The Street

New and exciting opportunities can also open up for an artist when one museum teams up with another, as with the example of the 3 Series touring exhibition 3 Artists / 3 Spaces / 3 Years that recently opened at Modern Art Oxford (MAO), featuring the work of one of Europe’s most interesting young artists, Mircea Cantor alongside the young and already critically acclaimed Katie Paterson, and photographs by one of the giants of American photography, Ansel Adams. The show travels on to Arnolfini, Bristol and Camden Arts Centre, London.

Cantor’s commissioned project ‘The Need for Uncertainty’, will evolve through a process of metamorphosis as it travels from gallery to gallery. The central piece at MAO—a giant gilded cage filled with a series of ever-decreasing smaller cages—is too large to be accommodated in the next two institutions, so the cage will be replaced by a pair of golden gates. The drive behind the transformation of the work may have resulted from a need to accommodate the reduced scale and ceiling heights of the two museums after MAO, but it has also meant that Cantor has been encouraged to evolve and expand the theme behind his work.

If the 3 Series adapts as it changes venue, the Whitechapel Gallery in London has taken on a major year-long programme of site-specific commissions, which will develop according to the different artists it has invited to develop seven week-long projects, between March 2008 and April 2009, in and around Wentworth Street, East London (famous for the Petticoat Lane market). Concurrent to the series of projects, the Whitechapel itself will be undergoing a process of major renovation, and so the commissions serve to neatly ‘fill the gap’ while the building is being transformed. The programme has begun with Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov’s commission ‘A Turnover for Many and a Bit of Luck for One’, which offers a member of the public the chance to win a specially created artwork by the artist worth £5,000.

Needless to say a series of public commissions centred around a busy street in the capital requires participating artists to make some serious researches into the local area. But this is not all the work is about—as a result of this ‘experiment’ the viewer can also begin to make some serious research into the artist and the museum behind the commission. For public art like this isn’t so much about provoking a reaction or making a bold pronouncement, as it is about forging dialogues.

As the press coverage of the increasing number of contemporary art commissions initiated by public galleries and museums grows, and the public itself has more to say about this commissioned art that is subsequently bought up by important public collections, so we begin to realise that this process of commissioning is accelerating our institutions’ ability to collect and bring contemporary art to an ever-widening audience.

Jane Neal is an art writer and curator