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What is a Commission?


Walker Art Center



Institution Walker Art Center
Act of appointing or assigning someone to execute a certain work or set of works. Such an act is often made in the form of a contract. Commission may refer to a work executed under such an agreement.

The particular character of each commission and the relationship between the artist and the commissioning institution is unique. All begin as support for an idea generated from a discussion between the artist and the commissioning institution. These conversations continue throughout the execution of the work and often greatly affect the final project. Former Director Martin Friedman collaborated with Martin Puryear on the shape, placement, and even title of his sculpture AMPERSAND (illustration 1), commissioned as a gateway to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Siah Armajani's BRIDGE BOOK represents three commissions in one -- his Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, a poem by John Ashbery for the bridge, and the artist book itself about his many bridge projects.

A commission can be almost anything -- dance, music, video, film, sculpture, installation, projects for the Internet, architecture, and design. Mark Luyten made seasonal visits to the Walker over a two-year period, working with Walker staff and others to create ephemeral installations, photographs, and film and video works. In conjunction with the NEW MUSIC AMERICA festival in 1980, musicians such as Max Neuhaus, Liz Phillips, and Pauline Oliveros were commissioned to create sound installations in public sites throughout Minneapolis. THE LISTENING PROJECT was an educational outreach project that resulted in a video work by Helen De Michiel. Chantal Akerman's traveling exhibition of multiple video-monitor installations, D'EST (illustration 2), was commissioned in 1995. The recently published guide to the Garden and signage for the Walker's family program, Free First Saturday, were commissions from illustrator j.otto Seibold. In 1995, type designer Matthew Carter was commissioned to create the typeface "Walker," which appears in the titles throughout this brochure.

Yes and no. Where a commissioned work is placed often depends on the terms of the contract made between the commissioning institution and the artist. The Walker has commissioned works for specific public sites and others that are not dependent on being shown in a particular place. Many of the commissioned works in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden are site-specific, such as Frank Gehry's STANDING GLASS FISH (1988) in the Cowles Conservatory. Sol LeWitt was commissioned to design a crosswalk between the Walker and the Garden for the inauguration. This crosswalk, LINES IN TWO DIRECTIONS (1988), has since been removed due to the negative effects of many hard winters. Dorit Cypis created the interactive environment BACKSTAGE AT THE WALKER (illustration 5) for the Art Lab, a classroomlike space run by the Education and Community Programs Department for use primarily by school groups. For the exhibition series ARCHITECTURE TOMORROW, architects were commissioned to create installations for Gallery 7 that could also travel to be shown at other museums across the country.

Every commission is the exception to the rule. Performing arts commissions are ephemeral events that can be presented elsewhere while the artist maintains rights to it. Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's GOSPEL AT COLONUS has been staged many times nationally and was even featured on PBS. Works created for the Internet pose unique questions of permanence and authorship. Piotr Szyhalski's DING AN SICH (illustration 3), commissioned for the virtual GALLERY 9, remains the property of the artist while the Walker maintains an archival copy on its Web site. If a commission does result in a tangible object, the Walker retains the right of first refusal to accession the work into its permanent collection. Once a work of art is acquired, the Walker is responsible for its conservation/care and for controlling the reproduction of its image. The famous SPOONBRIDGE AND CHERRY (1985-1988) by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen is permanent and owned by the Walker. It requires extensive care to conserve it for generations to come.

From classical antiquity, artists have been commissioned to make artworks. Historically, patrons -- religious institutions, mercantile organizations, the nobility, or individual philanthropists -- provided the financial and moral support for artists, and museums functioned as collectors and exhibitors. In the recent past, the role of museums has changed. In addition to collecting and exhibiting work, many museums now assume a greater responsibility in supporting contemporary artists through commissions.

Commissioning new work is one of the many ways the Walker fulfills its mission as "a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences." COMMISSION POSSIBLE looks at a cross section of projects made for the Walker from 1980 through the present, poses questions that help clarify what a commission is, and reminds us of the Walker's multidisciplinary approach to the creation, presentation, collection, and preservation of contemporary art.

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Type: Commentary, gallery guide
Source: Text from the exhibition brochure Commission Possible: Walker Art Center, 1980-1998, Andersen Window Gallery, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, November 21, 1998-August 1, 1999.
Rights: Copyright 1998 Walker Art Center
Added to Site: March 1, 2009