One of a kind

One of the best reasons for visiting the Frieze Art Fair is not to look at the art on sale but to discover the Frieze Projects. These one-off, commissioned artworks dotted around the event add an extra dimension to the fair and, says curator Sarah McCrory, “can be a great jumping point for emerging artists – it takes them to another level”.

Commissioning art is, of course, not new; historically, most art was made this way, with the Church as the biggest patron, and with kings, princes and wealthy bankers vying to outdo each other with lavish cultural displays in their palaces.

But in today’s world, the range of patrons and even the concept of commissioned art has grown enormously. It extends all the way from public institutions (for instance Tate Modern’s series of works in the Turbine Hall) to large companies (works by Langlands & Bell and Sol LeWitt for British Airways’ Terminal Five at Heathrow), public spaces (Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” in Gateshead), right through to the private realm.

Louisa Buck, whose book, A Place for Art: The Contemporary Commissioner’s Handbook, will be published next year, describes “a more adventurous collector base, increasingly prepared to take that leap of faith that comes with commissioning challenging artworks rather than buying them from a gallery or at auction.”

Exterior Concourse Diagram (2000) by Liam Gillick, at Andy Stillpass’s home in Cincinatti

The Cincinnati collector Andy Stillpass is one such. He has encouraged artists to “inhabit” his home, where commissions include an Andrea Zittel “Yard Yachts” camper in the driveway with a bumper sticker by Jeremy Deller reading “God Less America”, while one side of the house is covered with a colourful maze-like Liam Gillick painting. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster has created a portrait on the front lawn with clothes taken from each member of the family.

Portraiture is the most enduring example of commissioned work in the private sphere, and some artists produce groovy updates of the classic genre: Boo Ritson or Julian Opie, for example. But even in such a traditional field, artists today may lean to the metaphorical or abstract. Tracey Emin, for example, has created neon sign “portraits” based on a questionnaire about the sitter.

“Commissioning underlines your seriousness as a collector,” says Buck. “I’m not talking about someone asking an artist to make work that matches the curtains or a flattering portrait – it’s increasingly about allowing artists to realise a vision that may not be all that easy to live with: it’s often not for the faint-hearted.” Indeed, she says, the relationship with the artist can become very close, “almost like a marriage”.

‘Moving World (Night & Day)’ by Langlands & Bell at Terminal Five, Heathrow (2008)

The London-based arts organisation Artangel has been commissioning art for 25 years and James Lingwood is celebrating 20 years as co-director. “When I started, a very high proportion of commissions were permanent pieces,” he says. “Now many of the works we commission are transient, often a response to a specific place. We aim to create something that stays alive in people’s memories.” Among Artangel’s projects is Rachael Whiteread’s “House” (1993), or Michael Landy’s destruction of his possessions in “Break Down” (2001), in an empty Oxford Street shop. “Another major shift in the last 10 to 15 years,” he says, “is the way major museums have moved from buying artefacts to becoming producers of art themselves,” citing projects such as Tate’s Turbine Hall installations.

Vivien Lovell of the independent agency Modus Operandi, whose clients range from universities, developers, hospitals and housing trusts to royal palaces, says: “Whether in the private or public realm, commissioning is a challenge but it’s always interesting to break new ground by inviting artists to consider an unprecedented context, scale or material.”

Being part of a creative process does not preclude rigour, and commissioning needs a structured approach. Proper contracts are essential, but the situation varies as to the model. In the private realm, arrangements can be more fluid and personal, whereas institutions, both public and private, will want a very clear idea of what is planned, budget, time frame and so on.

But even then things can go horribly wrong: one extreme case was the open warfare between Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in the US and the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel in 2007. The museum commissioned a large-scale installation, “Training Ground for Democracy”, from the artist. It was to be created inside a gigantic warehouse at the museum, and include a trailer home, an oil tanker and shipping containers, plus parts of an old cinema. But costs soared and the time-frame was tripled, before the whole affair ended messily in the law courts.

Such cases are rare, but for both the artist and the patron, a commissioned artwork is always a leap into the unknown. Models can only give an idea, and scaled up, a piece may look very different. Buck says: “It doesn’t matter how much pre-preparation is made, even the most experienced artist will admit that they never know exactly how a work will look until it is in situ – that’s what makes commissioning so exciting.” At Frieze in 2009, a piece by the Polish artist Monika Sosnowska, intended to represent a concrete monolith that had crashed into the tent, was taken down just before the fair started on the artist’s request. “It got lost in translation,” said Sosnowska at the time, who said the finished project “was fake-looking”.

“It’s a high-risk area and there’s the potential for much to go wrong,” says Lovell. “But there are controlled stages to the process and curators need the confidence to say to the artist, or the client, ‘This isn’t ready or this isn’t working’, and suggest other approaches, a change of materials, for instance.”

And even when all goes well, a commission doesn’t end with delivery of the piece. Buck says: “You will need to conserve and maintain it, and publicise it in the case of a public work.”

Disputes between the owner of an artwork and its creator can affect its value: recently, a sculpture by Anthony Caro, which was modified from its original form by its Sculpture Trust owners, failed to sell at auction after he disowned the changes. So taking care of a commissioned work – indeed, any work of art – is important, both to maintain its authenticity as well as respecting the original intention of the artist.

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