Undertaking Commissions

The past decade has seen significant increases in the range of opportunities for visual artists to work on commissions. On one hand this can be linked to developments in policy on public art but in the main it can be accredited to artists who have continued to challenge the traditional perception of commissioning and public art practice.

Commissions can arise from a variety of sources. Artists may apply for or be approached to undertake private or corporate commissions. Opportunities may arise for artists’ projects in the public realm through publicly funded galleries and venues working in off-site locations, sometimes through organised events & festivals.

A sizeable amount of advertised commissions are funded through the Per Cent for Art Scheme which is operated in the Republic of Ireland. In the past commissions through this scheme were dominated by requests from commissioners for object based sculpture, along the lines of ‘here’s the site, here’s the money, now show me what you can do’ school of thought. Thankfully there has been progress and while there are still a range of innovative sculpture commissions on offer the scheme is now more firmly connected to contemporary arts practice.

Working in the public realm has obvious benefits to artists. Presenting an art project to a wide public audience – some of whom may not necessarily visit gallery spaces – can provide openings for new interpretations of work and ideas.

However working beyond the possible comfort zone of a traditional gallery or exhibition space also brings distinct challenges. Some of these are outlined here under the premise that to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Current Context
For the most part commissions and public art projects can be described as a process of dialogue and negotiation. This process usually involves a trinity of partners – the artist, the commissioner and the public.
Often an artist has to invest an immeasurable amount of time in negotiating the best possible outcome for a commission. The success of a public art project can be directly linked not only to the quality of the artist’s idea and its connection to its context but also to how the artist has developed and maintained good working relationships during the commissioning process.

Nationally and internationally it can be said that visual artists’ often use the wide public arena as a space to exhibit, perform and construct art projects. This has led to critical debate and increased public awareness of art in the public realm and has in turn influenced commissioner attitudes to commissioning practice. In the past commission opportunities often focused solely on the product or outcome to the loss of the amount of time invested in the overall process.

Okay, this may be a bit idealistic for the average visual artist who is being instructed by a commissioner as to whether the statue of the horse should have a saddle or not but public art policy has become more supportive of artists practice and certainly more flexible over the past ten years.

Taking the Per Cent for Art Scheme as an example of this, in 2004 the first set of national public art guidelines were launched by the Irish Department of Arts, Sports & Tourism. In the document public art practice is described as being of “any form and can work within or across many art forms, such as visual art, music, theatre, dance, opera, film, literature, architecture, traditional arts and circus and street spectacle. Public art includes all aspects of contemporary arts practice such as performance, live art, multimedia, video art, sound art, etc. Projects can be of any duration, temporary or permanent and can be centred in an urban or rural context.”

This text aims to give an outline of the breath of creative possibilities which can be developed and commissioned in the public realm. The text further aims to give artists support for expanded practice within and beyond the sculptural object.

From a visual arts perspective it is worth noting that the inclusion of all artforms in the scheme was first defined in the guidelines but that a majority of Per Cent for Art Scheme commissions are still focusing on visual art. Visual artists may wish to work collaboratively with artists from other artforms and this is now supported.

The process of developing these guidelines provided an opportunity for artists concerns and experiences to be addressed in a productive way. Artists inputted to the development of the guidelines by asking for best practice principles to be clearly defined and recognised. These include the need to allow time for dialogue in the commissioning process; the early integration of arts projects; the need for artistic advice from the onset; the importance of a clear and creative artists’ brief and the need for professional project management through out the process.

At present low estimates indicate a potential annual fund of €6 to €10M available nationally through the Per Cent for Art Scheme for the commissioning of new arts projects. This gives a brief indication of the wealth of opportunities an artist may experience in connection to the development of infrastructure such as the building of new roads, hospitals, schools and housing projects, to name but a few.

The Commissioning Process and Artists Brief
The advice of the Public Art Handbook for Northern Ireland states that ‘those who work with artists should: contribute confidently, prepare thoroughly, collaborate creatively and aim high, and that artists should do likewise’.

The commissioning process can be described as having five key phases – planning, selection, research and development, realisation and review.

An artist’s first interaction with the process is usually through the commission brief. This outlines the commissioner’s vision for the art project and acts as an introduction to artists. Artists can get a true sense of the commissioner’s vision through the brief. If the brief reads as clear, creative and ambitious then an artist can get an early indication of what it will be like when undertaking the commission.

Equally, if the brief reads as overly prescriptive or tight then the artist would be warned that there is a strong possibility that this viewpoint will most likely remain during the commissioning process.

When designing the brief the commissioner will already have made a number of key decisions regarding the parameters for the commission. The commissioner can decide whether to adapt an open and flexible attitude to artists ideas or alternatively to set the commission parameters quite tightly.

Through the brief the artist will see how the commissioner has set specific boundaries on the commission such as preferred art form, site, budget, timeframe, etc. In a worst case scenario the brief will go so far as to dictate materials, colour schemes, themes and ideas for the project

This is what could be termed as the ‘Argos catalogue’ mentality to commissioning, where a commissioner decides ‘we want one of those, but not in that colour, and maybe a bit bigger…’ With tight commission briefs of this nature one cannot help but wonder why an artist is required at all and would it not be preferential for the commissioning committee to go straight to a fabricator with their own idea.

Fortunately commissioners now have access to more support than ever before to assist them in the process of commissioning artists. Resources organisations, publications, websites, guidelines and handbooks have all been developed with the aim of improving the process for artists.

Artists can see evidence of input from professional practicing artists where the brief lists the membership of the commission selection panel, who will review artists’ proposals.

A good example of recent commissioning practice is South Dublin County Council’s In Context commissioning programme which has developed innovative ways of approaching artists. For the In Context 2 series which began in 1999 the artists brief was deliberately left very open with the aim that artists would select their own sites, budgets, materials, timescales and the communities they wished to work with. This allowed artists to consider context over site and to carry out research subsequent to being appointed rather than prior to selection.

For the current In Context 3 series the local authority have developed this principle a step further by commissioning visual artist John Byrne to make a short film about the county to be included in the published briefing document. This aimed to give Irish and international artists an honest flavour of the people, time and place in which they were being invited to develop art projects through the eyes of another artist.

When reviewing a commission brief artists can get a sense very quickly for the commissioners’ openness. Artists have the ability to offer new perspectives on society and to tell us something we don’t already know. They act as observers, reporters and analysts of the time that we live in. A restricted brief offers less opportunity for artists to fulfil this role and at times requests artists to design purely functional objects.

Some commission briefs are set out from the start to specifically deal with issues of a historical or commemorative nature. Artists will see evidence of this in the commission brief and can decide if they wish to work in this way. If this is not clear and the brief contains an abundance of information on local history and folklore then artists would be advised to clarify with the commissioner how much flexibility there is within the brief for unusual or imaginative proposals, before they proceed.

Competition Methods and Options
Artists may undertake commissions through a range of mechanisms such as open competition, limited competition, direct invitation or purchase.

Open competition has been deemed as expensive and time consuming from the commissioners perspective but can provide a useful means for emerging artists to gain experience of developing proposals and projects.

Limited competitions operate where a commissioner draws up a shortlist of artists, often with the input of professional artistic advice, and directly approaches them to make a proposal for a commission. This allows artists to carry out research for their proposal and shortlisted artists are paid a proposal development fee.

Direct invitation or purchase operates similarly to limited competition but in this instance a commissioner may choose to approach one artist to develop a proposal or to purchase work from the artist’s collection for a set context or site.

For emerging artists or those with less experience of public art commissioning it is worth making yourself known professionally to the local authority or publicly funded galleries and venues in your area. That way should they be consulted on upcoming commissions they have the option of recommending your work. This actually happens more frequently that artists may realise and some of the major commissioners who operate limited competitions are known for always including a number of emerging artists or ‘wild cards’ in their shortlists.

Site Visits
Some commissions include site visits which gives artists a chance to view sites for projects, to meet with communities and sometimes to meet with members of the selection panel to ask questions about the parameters for the project. At times artists have experienced gaps between a potentially open brief and confusingly different verbal information at a site visit.

This can be a signal that the commission brief has not been fully clarified. A typical commissioning group deciding on the artists brief can include engineers, architects and construction project managers as well as artistic advice so the possibility for a difference of opinions is inherent.

If an artist finds himself or herself in this situation it is best to be led by the original brief and their initial response to it. By submitting your best idea you have the opportunity to build a reputation for creatively and intelligently responding to the brief.

At site visits artists can sometimes be reluctant to ask the questions they really want to ask, which may give too much information away on their particular concept. Commissioners may have the facility to take questions by email or by phone after the site visit. However if this is the case generally all questions and answers are circulated to all those who attended.

Selection Panels – The Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth
Generally speaking a commission is awarded following the review of proposals by a selection panel. An exception to this is where a professional curator or practicing artist may be appointed to adjudicate on submissions and select an artist(s). The criteria for selection should be clearly outlined in the artists brief. Usually criteria would include:

  • the quality of the idea presented including its originality; the potential impact of the proposal to a site, community or context; scale; feasibility, etc.
  • the track record or potential of the artist, and
  • other proposals and available resources

Commissions may have specific criteria such as a need to consider an artist’s experience of working in community contexts and on education initiatives such as artists’ workshops or talks.

The number of individuals and range of expertise on a selection panel may vary. Ideally the make-up of the group should be listed on the artists brief. According to best practice guidelines the majority of people on the panel viewing artists’ proposals should represent artistic advice such as a professional practicing artist, arts curator, local arts officer or public art officer, etc.

It is worthwhile for artists to consider the breath of expertise on the selection panel when preparing a proposal. These could range from community representatives to local councillors and from engineers and architects to construction project managers.

I have had the experience of working on public panels with Garda sergeants, nuns and consultant paediatricians who all made very worthwhile contributions to the discussions and were very quick to spot the best idea presented.

When preparing submissions for a panel artists should remember that the panel may not be familiar with their work and should not presume they will be. Also when describing chosen materials or methods for a project these should be stated clearly without appearing to be condescending.

Selection panels usually sit for one day, sometimes two depending on the number of entries or level of detail in the submissions. With the right balance of expertise discussion is usually balanced and not dominated by one individual with an agenda.

The selection panel’s role is really to get the best idea and artist for the specific context. Selection panels are very thorough, wishing to respond to the effort made by the artists in developing and submitting their proposals.

With recent improvements in professional project management it is becoming common practice for panels to record feedback for artists especially to those who have been unsuccessful, which can be communicated to artists in a follow up letter. If feedback is not forthcoming artists can approach the commissioner and request it. This may go a long way in assisting artists in improving future commission proposals.

Once You Have Been Selected
This is the stage when the need to develop and maintain good working relationships becomes most important. An artist may have contact with a commissioning team such as engineers, architects or community representatives on a project for a long period of time. Sure the commission has an agreed and reasonable timeframe but at times these can be extended or delayed. So consider this team as a group of work colleagues for the duration of the commission. Working with a range of expertise such as these presents unique opportunities for artists to exchange perspectives and to develop new skills.

Once an artist is selected they either proceed with realising the proposal submitted or are contracted for a specific period of research and development. A research and development period allows artists to develop a proposal to a greater degree under pre-arranged headings such as engineering, landscaping, site and location, performance location, community participation, feasibility, etc. This period should be contracted separately to the main commission contact and be clear on deadlines, fees, meeting schedules and expected outcomes.

While the commission is being realised an artist may face certain challenges and compromises, such as the need for changes and refinements to the proposed idea. For example, this may be as a result of engineering advice be it from the engineer contracted by the artist or by the commissioner. These could be in connection with technical details such as foundations, weight bearing, wind loading, materials, suppliers, timeframes, etc.

An artist ability to negotiate these challenges again will be influenced by the working relationship they have with the commissioning body. Flexibility is often required by both the artist and the commissioner. Realising and completing the project to the highest standards technically and artistically offers immense rewards not just financially but also in terms of career development.

When proceeding to the main commission contract, this should confirm all the relevant details of the commission in order for work to begin. If required, artists can seek assistance with interpreting commission contracts from resource organisations, guidelines and handbooks.

This is also the best time to confirm who the artist’s lead contact will be for the commission in order to aid efficiency and to avoid potential differences of opinions between commissioner representatives.

In reference to working with teams of expertise, in the past the general perception was that when working with architects they would, in the main, be very protective of ‘their building’ or their project. This is not always the case and in my experience I have witnessed architects go to great lengths to support a clear and creative proposal at selection panels and to offer ongoing support during the realisation of projects.

Artists are advised to document each stage of the commission as it develops. In some cases documentation can be carried out professionally by the commissioner and, if so, the artist should clarify access to this at the beginning of the process.

Conclusions – This Much We Know
Artists should always try to retain the authorship of their idea while also taking the opportunity to push the boundaries a bit. This in turn helps commissioners to continually expand their perceptions of what commissioning and public art practice can be. Give the selection panel a creative surprise and, even if it is not commissioned this time round, know that you have given it your best shot. Failure can best be seen as a learning curve. On this, be wary of submitting the same idea to different selection panels and each time calling it site specific. The range of public art specialist staff has increased over the past number of years as has the number and range of public art projects being commissioned. There is nothing more embarrassing that sitting on a selection panel and looking at the same proposal you saw at a different panel a few weeks previously.

Commissions offer artists the opportunity to test new ideas with and for new audiences. They offer artists access to challenging budgets and contexts which may not be available in gallery or institution based settings.

Commissions can offer very worthwhile experience for your CV and push an artists practice in new and unexpected directions. They can also provide opportunities to realise ambitious work not possible in an artist’s general practice due to constraints such as funding or accessibility to specific sites or contexts.

Guidelines and handbooks are now in place and are designed to support the central role of the artist in the commissioning process. Artists should arm themselves with copies of these to be informed of this public information.

That said it is quite possible that the best artists projects and commissions that could develop in Ireland over the next ten years may very well happen outside of any published guidelines and handbooks.

By Annette Moloney
A graduate in Fine Art from Limerick School of Art & Design, Annette Moloney has been specialising in the area of public art development for a number of years. At present she works as the Artistic Director of Clare County Council’s Public Art programme. Prior to this her role as Public Art Specialist with the Arts Council of Ireland included membership of an Inter-Departmental Public Art Coordination Group, which developed the first set of national guidelines for the Per Cent for Art Scheme.

She has published writing on contemporary arts practice in a number of journals including CIRCA and Visual Artists Ireland. More than anything she tries to retain an artist centred approach to her work. She is interested in the many ways that individuals and societies use culture to shape their identities, including art, design, food and sport. She is a proud member of the Munster Rugby Supporters Club.

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