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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