David Patten – A New Year Provocation for 2008

DATE: January 2008


Artist David Patten clears up some confusion over the commissioning of artists in the development process. He argues that keeping artists at one remove from the development process, sheltered by agencies and curators, can add to continuing ignorance and the sense of unease over the artist’s role.


An Ordinary Thing

The involvement of artists in development processes should, by now, be commonplace – it should be an ordinary thing. For nearly 20 years we have committed time, energy and resources to remembering the idea that the artist can make useful contributions to the built environment and public realm. Today, there should be nothing surprising or special about artists doing this sort of work.

And yet, our ways of going on with this are far from ordinary – in fact they are quite the reverse. Everything we say and do to bring artists into play – our strategies and policy imperatives, commissioning tactics, management procedures, and so on – reinforces the idea that artists working in development processes is something that requires specialness of some kind. And, in turn, this specialness encourages separateness, and we all then start again in the firm belief that the involvement of artists in development processes is NOT an ordinary thing.

It’s probably time we got this sorted out.


Artists are not well placed to participate in development processes. There is little or nothing in the teaching or early years experience of most artists that equips them to participate, partner-up, co-operate and/or collaborate. The contemporary artist is still the abbreviation of Alberti’s closing out of bigger possibilities. We’ve learnt nothing. It’s a problem!

But is the best way of resolving this problem simply to position mediators between the artist and the development process? Of course it is easy to say that this agency or that curator (as commissions manager) will deal with the art(ist) – on the one hand it shifts the responsibilities towards the art(ist) elsewhere, and on the other it keeps the possibility of the art(ist) at arm’s length, at one remove, from the development process. But this comes with baggage, and it is this baggage that makes for anything but an ordinary thing.


To think again in terms of agencies is to be reactionary. Agencies may be an attractive option to a particular sort of client or funder, the client or funder who simply wants to be done with things. For this sort of client or funder, working through an agency is no different from employing a personal shopper – both make sense to the box ticking that pleases little minds.

“A personal shopper will give the customer focused and individual attention, and will advise the customer of what is in fashion, help the customer to decide what looks good on them, or assist in picking out an outfit for a particular occasion – or even an entire wardrobe for a particular season. Personal shopping services typically begin with a request or question from the client about the item, product or service that they are looking for. Customers are typically required to pay for the information. After the personal shopper has located the item or items according to the client’s needs, the customer is notified.”(1)

Agencies are organisations, they have instrumental agendas that sell other agendas short as a prerequisite for staying in business. For a price, they offer access to special things within the catch-all of memorable branding based on visionary strategies and artist selection procedures that are culture-led, community-focused and developer driven. They can also offer poetry and creative writing, choreography, engineering, design, fashion and film when these things are in fashion/season.

The responsibility of the agency is to itself, it has instrumental ways of going on that paper over the lack of practice or purpose or theory. Its ways of going on are chiffon-clouded and obscure.


If, like Ruth Estévez, we consider the etymological root of the word ‘curator’ [curatela], we find the definition “the individual that is in charge of the well being of minors and lunatics” (2). Do we really believe that artists are lunatics? If we do, we would be foolish and irresponsible in advocating their involvement in development processes. Just as we wouldn’t set out to work with a mentally deranged Quality Surveyor or engineer. Of course, if artists are lunatics it is prudent to employ curators.

But if artists aren’t lunatics, what are curators doing in development processes? What are the experiences and skills they bring to the project? How have they learnt these things? And where have they come from? Are they skilled in project management, or geography, or place making, or property development, or environmental sciences, or funding, or construction, or anything that might be useful? If, as is often the case, they come from art and/or design via the gallery, they should come clean and either be the artist or designer or return to the gallery – otherwise it is theft and shenanigans.

Who Gets There First?

It looks as though we have all signed up to the early involvement of artists in development processes, but still support the use of agencies and curators in commissioning artists. This is a contradiction. Or maybe it is just poor thinking.

Whatever it is, we have an obligation to come clean on what we mean, on what our intentions really are. Either we commit to doing those things (or undoing other things) that secure the unrestricted early involvement of artists in advance of the specialist agency or curator OR we say that the contributions of artists are secondary to the specialist agency or curator.

What To Do

“…there is a growing feeling of – well, why bother? Indeed, an enterprise that emerged with such idealism now feels like a lost opportunity.” (3).

Organ-grinders, mandarins and paper tigers. Certainly, Patricia Philips’ public art as “free field, the play of creative vision” (4) has become overcrowded and in need of a radical detox – time to clear out cupboards; control comfort eating; change old habits.

If we do genuinely want the early involvement of artists in development processes, we have to start doing things differently – not least, learn how to hold the door open and not stand in the way. And this requires new infrastructure developed from an early direct-pointing-coming-clean-understanding of how and where things have become self-defeating – how our ‘ways of going on’ now choke the possibilities of public art.

Equally, if we go back to the specialist agency or accept the ‘curator’ way of doing things, we need to understand how this can be done without creating cultural elite riding roughshod.


1. Wikipedia definition of ‘personal shopper’.

2. Ruth Estévez. ‘No Restrictions Applied’. http://www.li-mac.org/english/arq3.htm

3. Patricia Philips. ‘Out of Order – The Public Art Machine’. Art Forum 27.

4. Patricia Philips. Keynote address at ‘Public Art – The New Agenda’, University of Westminster, 18 November 1993.


David Patten’s website: http://www.davidpatten.co.uk/

Erich Fromm Interview Excerpt 1

Erich Fromm Interview Excerpt 2

The artist Buster Simpson’s website: http://www.bustersimpson.net/index.html

Dylan Trigg’s blog ‘Side-Effects’

The work of Ilya Kabakov

The work of André Malraux

Introduction to the Collection of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León http://www.musac.es/index_en.php?secc=2

The Ad Reinhardt Papers, 1927-1968, in the Archives of American Art http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/findingaids/reinad.htm

IMAGE CAPTION: Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels. [Goya: Caprichos Plate 43]
image©David Patten 2004.