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To commission or not to commission?

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

One thing that surprised me when speaking to early career artists during my research last year was their yearning for time and space to explore their own practice rather than being always ‘on’ to respond to commissions. I had always assumed, perhaps too simplistically, that commissions = money = good.

My assumption was probably influenced by the time I spent immersed in the design world. Designers work mostly on the basis of commission. The activity of designing, for the most part, is a process by which a product or a service is created as a response to customer needs; for example, a chair that improves our posture.

Sometimes, design creates the need altogether. Think iPhone or iPad – we didn’t want one until they appeared, and now… don’t we all NEED one?

If we return to art, the context is different because functionality does not quite make it into the equation. While patrons commissioning artists is as old as art itself, even when there is a theme and an end purpose to the creation of an artwork, there is also the element of artistic license. A patron may ask an artist to ‘paint a picture to hang in their dining room that will inspire them as they eat together with their community’, but the exact form it will take and the emotion it will convey are left to the artist to imagine.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first time I commissioned an artwork was at the end of last year. As a first step towards working with an artist, I found it really exciting. A close friend of mine had just launched her business and I wanted to support her; it is also an intriguing and inspired idea. Happy Funky Family commissions artists to transform treasured family photos into highly personal works of art. Working with Dale, I turned a portrait of my children into a screen-printed and hand-painted artwork on aluminium, using digital technology to combine multiple

photograph sources. Thanks to Dale’s reinterpretation of two likenesses so precious to me, I now have a painting hanging on my wall that, in my own eyes, has no equal in any museum collection. The bond created with this artwork has an intensity like no other.

So yes, there is something deeply appealing about artist commissions. But there can be too much of a good thing… because being busy with commissions leaves no time and space for the artist’s own open-ended exploration and tuning into their inner voice. That is why, when I started ArtULTRA, I focused a lot of our research on finding residencies and subsidised studio spaces that help artists carve out the necessary time and space to work on their personal development. Covid-19 has obviously made all this more challenging, but hopefully, as we emerge from this time of restrictions and isolation, more opportunities will arise for residencies. And when they do, ArtULTRA will be sharing the news across its network.

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