The commissioning of art is as old as art history itself, but the last decade has seen a huge expansion of works being made to order, with institutions, public organisations and private individuals all falling over themselves to commission custom-made artworks for every location imaginable.
From Tate Modern’s annual turbine hall projects to Frieze Projects’ special programme of art commissions (which this year include a field of smoking incense and an artist serving sloe gin) or the recent spate of Olympic commissions that included a giant column of steam rearing up from the Mersey, everyone is in search of the profile-raising, crowd-pulling, credibility-ensuring power of ordering up an artwork.
Private collectors are increasingly getting in on the act. “We commission works because it’s adventurous,” says Miami-based collector Dennis Scholl. “It’s so much more involved than going to a show and saying, I’ll take the third one from the left.”
Anita Zabludowicz, who with her husband Poju makes a point of commissioning artists at the beginning of their careers for their collection, agrees: “It’s an amazing journey, very educational and rewarding. When the commission is complete, you have more than an artwork.”
Commissioning requires a particular leap of faith on both sides. The more interesting the artwork, the greater the margin for creativity. As Dennis Scholl also admits, this can be tricky: “It’s complex, it’s very risky: sometimes you can get the most inspired work ever, other times it doesn’t work out so well.”
Yet it is precisely this element of being at the cutting edge of creativity that makes commissioning such an exciting activity. As Christine Van Assche, chief curator at the Pompidou Centre in Paris puts it, “The excitement is to produce new works, to make them happen. There is a utopian aspect to commissioning: you are very close to the artist’s intentions.”
Commissioning contemporary art is more a matter of mindset than megabucks. One of the world’s most respected private patrons is Cincinnati car dealer Andy Stillpass, who for over a decade has invited artists to stay and make often modest works for his family home, declaring that: “By commissioning works, I feel that I am commissioning experiences. I love the works that have resulted ... but just as important are the memories and the experience of working closely with artists.”
Artistic responses to the Stillpass house have included Martin Creed’s “Work No 88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball” installed in every room, a back door gorily transformed into Karen Kliminik’s memorial to the Manson murders – “parents bringing their children for play dates were sometimes a little concerned” – and an ongoing family portrait by Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, in the form of a clothes line hung with articles of white clothing taken from family cupboards, and replaced over the years.
Not every patron is as dedicated as Stillpass, but every successful commission, great or small, radical or more mainstream, depends on mutual trust, clear communication and not too much meddling on the part of the patron.
For those of us with more modest means it makes sense to commission artists at the beginning of their careers, and art school degree shows are a good place to start. Working with emerging artists provides them with much-needed revenue in those fragile early years, and the rewards can be especially great as they are often prepared to go the extra distance.
When my son (now 20) was born I offered the then virtually unknown Grayson Perry a low three-figure sum – I think it was £300 – to make something to mark the birth: a plate, a bowl, a cup, of any shape or size, it was up to him. The only brief was that it would have the arrival of Alfie as its subject.
The incredibly generous result was a stunning and substantial pot, modelled on a classic Chinese ginger jar and emblazoned with some explicit images of postnatal mother, father and offspring. The pot remains one of my most cherished possessions; and although it made him blush a bit during his teenage years, Alfie now shows it to his friends with pride, and Grayson remains a family friend.
So although it is certainly more challenging to embark upon an art commission than to buy a work off the peg, the outcome makes it infinitely worth the effort.
Louisa Buck and Daniel McClean’s new book, ‘Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists’, is published by Thames & Hudson