I’ve been interested in the question of the commissioning process since my early-career days at the Manchester Jazz Festival, where I developed, with my good friend Steve Mead, a framework for selection and production, mjf originals, which is still going strong and has produced outstanding works. They’ve now gone one step further by creating a new artistic development scheme, hothouse, “that gets rid of the traditional written application forms and long-winded grant funding processes that artists frequently endure”. Artists are selected on the basis of a short video and get mentoring, guidance, paid rehearsal time and a paid work-in-progress showcase. I’m looking forward to discover the exciting new music that will come out of this, and in the meantime, I’ve rounded up a few other commissioning / development schemes that I like the sound of, beyond music (admittedly with a view to borrow and steal ideas for future projects).
Les Nouveaux commanditaires (The New Patrons) is a public art “protocol” developed in 1991 by visual artist François Hers, with the support of the Fondation de France, in response to what he perceived as the disconnection of art and life: the culmination of a triple logic of the artist as genius, the art object as a market commodity and the public as passive and unconcerned.
This Protocol is about injecting and redefining value at all levels of the creation and reception / interaction process. Crucially, it’s the public – playing their full role as citizens – who take responsibility to commission an artwork from an artist.
As Patron (commissioner), they therefore have to understand and express the reasons why an artwork should exist and be invested in.
The artist’s role is to invent new forms that respond (or reflect, subvert, question…) to the evolving needs and realities of contemporary society. Within the Protocol, the responsibility for artistic creation is a shared, collective one, not just a private initiative.
The third key piece of this creative equation is the mediator, an experienced arts professional, part facilitator, part producer, part fundraiser, selected by peers to act as an go-between, stewarding the process, navigating all interests and accompanying the commissioning individual or group until and beyond the realisation of the work.
Philanthropists, political representatives and academics are also actors in the Protocol, each bringing their influence, expertise and self-interest to the process, making the resulting work more grounded in society, but also more tricky to produce – hence the importance of the sustained, long-term mediator’s work, “organising the cooperation” of all parties.
Extract from the Protocol (in the current English translation provided on the New Patrons website – it needs a rework!):
In committing to an equal sharing of responsibilities, all players agree to manage through negotiation the tensions and conflicts inherent in public life within a democracy.
The work of art, having become an actor of public life, thus ceases to be merely the emblematic expression of someone’s individuality to become the expression of autonomous persons who have decided to form a community in order to invent new ways of relating to the world and to give a shared meaning to contemporary creative activity.
Financed by private and public subventions, the artwork becomes the property of a collectivity and its value is no longer a market value, but the value of the usage this collectivity makes of it and the symbolic importance conferred upon it.
The “mediator” role is of course what makes me really tick in this process, as I’ve been exploring how to be a better Creative Producer for a while. In his 2016 short book Letter to a Friend about the New Patrons, François Hers expands on his motivations and journey to create the Protocol, and reflects on the rise of this go between figure, which has since flourished in all sectors and situations, especially under the title of facilitator.
Two mediators discuss here how the phrase (and concept) Les Nouveaux commanditaires has been translated outside France
There were 334 works listed on the website as of December 2017, which is a lot of citizen-led public art, so I could only pick a tiny sample below to illustrate the wide range of impulses and intentions behind these works:
- A New Product: A consulting firm specialised in office organisation commissioned an artist to accompany and make sense of their own relocation process.
- Qu’est ce qui nous rassemble ? (What Brings us Together?): An ad-hoc group of citizens (ccc) in the South West of France interested in the history and identity of their city engaged an artist to find the most relevant way to represent, in the public space, a contemporary vision of their city.
- The Ever Blossoming Garden: Parents and friends of a young woman murdered in 2007, after 5 years of organising silent marches in her memory, worked with an artist to create a peace sanctuary where violence could also be questioned.
- Et pluie le soleil: the staff of a children’s home wanted to bring beauty, colour and harmony inside the institution, but also change its perception and reputation in the village. The artist worked with the children in care to transform their place of residence and created a children’s book in place of a catalogue.
- Sharawaggi: A group of students commissioned a set of new bell sounds for their school.
I came across Tridanse when researching examples of art and mental health institutions, which led me straight to the extraordinary 3bisf, a contemporary art centre located within the 19th century wing of a psychiatric hospital in Aix-en-Provence. Until 1982, it was a closed environment, a “pavillon de force” for women only. Since 1983, it’s a centre that both presents performances and exhibitions and hosts visual and performing arts residencies. Artists can develop not only new works but also new processes to involve and meet audiences.
Tridanse is a networked residency created in 2005 specifically for dance artists, who get access to 4 different arts centres in the course of their selection timeframe as well as a €18,000 fee. As the name suggests, the programme started with 3 venues, all dotted around the South East of France, and a 4th one was added on the way:
- Le 3bisf, contemporary arts centre, Aix-en-Provence
- Le Vélo Théâtre, “Maison d’artistes pour le théâtre d’objet, le compagnonnage et le croisement des arts” (I love this description, which I’d very roughly translate by “Artists’ Home for Object Theatre, Companionship (traditional network of knowledge transmission) and Hybridization of Arts), Apt
- Le Citron Jaune, National Centre for Public Space Arts, Port-Saint-Louis du Rhône (also home to the fantastic water-based arts company Ilotopie), Port-Saint-Louis du Rhône (in the beautiful Camargue)
- Le Théâtre Durance, theatre, Château Arnoux
Quoting from the Call for Proposals 2019, Tridanse has three joint objectives:
- To support the emergence of new forms of choreographic creation that weave danse into other artistic practices: visual arts, circus, theatre, philosophy, architecture, cinema, landscape…
- To enable reflection, action and experimentation on new relationships between artists, audiences and venue staff
- To outline new modes of supporting artistic projects
The process is also firmly based on sharing the different steps of the creative process with the team, audiences and other people involved in each venue (for example, the patients and hospital staff at the 3 bis f).
In 2018, the selected artist was Marta Izquierdo Muñoz, a choreographer from Catalonia based in Perpignan, who explored the figure of the majorette in her new piece Imago-Go during 4 residencies taking place between March and September, each lasting about a week and comprising a public showcase and/or workshop.
In 2017, Gaëtan Bulourde explored the notion of landscape through a performative installation bringing together video, movement and sound, also offering workshops and participatory events at each stage of the creative process.
In 2016, le collectif Etat d’urgence created Dites à ma mère que je suis là, now touring, based on ethnographic research in Calais and exploring the notions of borders, exclusion and policy.
Battersea Arts Centre is an arts centre housed in an old town hall in South West London. It’s a well-loved, well-used community resource, producing, presenting and touring innovative theatre as well as providing a welcoming environment for local residents of all ages for a variety of programmes and workshops.
In 2015, a fire destroyed the Great Hall, BAC’s main performing space, and the immediate and incredibly positive community response is a testament to how valued they are, both by theatre-goers and locals.
Since 2000, BAC’s philosophy has been based on Scratch, a creative principle that puts forward sharing, continuous learning and giving and receiving feedback.
Scratch is about sharing an idea with the public at an early stage of its development. When you Scratch an idea, you can ask people questions and consider their feedback. This helps you work out how to take your idea on to the next stage. It’s an iterative process that can be used again and again. Over time, ideas become stronger because they are informed by a wide-range of responses.
The feedback is an important part of the process but Scratch is not about doing everything that people’s feedback suggests; it is about using the responses to help you understand how people currently receive it and to help you shape your idea. The feedback doesn’t have to be a Q&A, you can simply share your idea ‘live’ and, by doing this, you can often tell what works and what doesn’t. Scratch recognizes that when an idea does not fully succeed, or even when it crashes and burns, that there is great learning to be gathered.
For the full lowdown, this 2015 story on the Google Arts & Culture platform retraces the 15 years of Scratch (officially launched in 2000). The Scratch legacy is huge: more than a more theatre, BAC now acts as an incubator of people and projects, using the creative principles of Scratch to work with artists, teachers, young entrepreneurs, spaces, museums…
There’s lots going on at Battersea Arts Centre, so I’ll just list here a few initiatives that use the Scratch principles in various contexts:
- Create Course, a weekly meet-up, where participants (16+) can explore new ways to be creative in their own life, coming together around good food, guest leaders, a lively discussion and creative tasks. Session guest leaders have included poet Deanna Rodger, garden designer Nina Leatherdale, chef Veronica Lopes da Sliva, producer Roisin Feeny, artist Conrad Murray, broadcaster Byron Vincent and spoken-word artist Polarbear… and BAC provides free creche on request.
- Collaborative Touring Network: a collaboration between BAC and 8 other producing partners in the UK formed in 2013 to produce, present and promote diverse events “to feed an appetite for culture in communities across the country” and realise the vision of “a nation where everyone has inspiring art and culture on their doorstep”. To date, the network has presented work in over 170 different spaces including parks, community centres, boxing gyms and nightclubs, imagining “new contexts for performances that inspire audiences and artists alike”.
- Agents of Creative Change, a free annual professional development programme for artists, public and third sector professionals who have a challenge to tackle in their professional environment, in their community, or both. The programme pairs practitioners with artists and offers a series of workshops to share practice, ideas and trial solutions to the presented challenges. In between meet-ups, participants realise test projects within the community. Previous participants have included those working in the police, local government, health services, employment and offender management. Artists have come from a wide variety of backgrounds including music & beatbox, design, writing, photography, performance work, digital and community theatre.
- Scratch Hub, opening in Autumn 2018, will be a creative co-working space based on the Scratch principles, offering members quite a few perks on top of a deskspace, from a time-banking scheme to exchange expertise and skills to talks and scratch nights “to foster collaborations, co-learning and creative conversations”, “opportunities for member-led programming and event hosting” and discounts on shows and food & drink (in the aptly named lovely Scratch Bar).
- BAC is also in the process of launching Co-Creating Change, an international network “to explore the role which producers, cultural organisations and artists can play to co-create change with community partners”, starting with the question: How can cultural centres also be community centres?