Last week, the German branch of the organization New Patrons received two million euros from the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes). The grant covers the production of approximately 20 new projects and gives the new model for public artworks a solid foothold in Germany.
New Patrons offers an alternative way of organizing the production of artworks in the public sphere. Established in France in 1992 under the name Nouveaux Commanditaires, the organization has initiated 450 projects so far, mainly in France and Belgium. In German the organization is called Neue Auftragsgeber.
The principle behind New Patrons is that anyone can commission public artworks. For most of the works realized so far, smaller groups of local citizens or employees have contacted New Patrons themselves in order to address issues of political or social relevance to their local communities. New Patrons then appoints a so-called “mediator” who assists the citizens on finding a suitable artist and on making plans for developing and funding the project.
Alexander Koch runs the Berlin-based gallery KOW and is the man behind the German branch of New Patrons. He mentions a project initiated by a group of women in Rostock in northeastern Germany as an example of the type of work New Patrons is involved with.
– The women wanted to develop a performative work of art that would help to bridge the gaps between the local population and newcomers from foreign countries. Just this week Candice Breitz presented her project proposal after a year of exchange and development work. It was approved by the commissioners, so we are now able to start production, says Alexander Koch.
What is the citizens’ role in the funding of the projects?
The citizens’ role as commissioners of the projects is independent from their financial background or their experience in fundraising. We aim at creating a network of resources and contributors for every individual project, and the citizens typically become part of this collaborative network in one way or another. The artists do too. It is a shared effort. But the general responsibility for the fundraising falls on the side of New Patrons and the mediators who manage the projects.
The New Patrons model encourages the direct engagement of the local citizens. How does your model differ from traditional “participatory social art”?
The demands of the citizens and our aspiration to create ambitious works of contemporary art from within specific social realities fuel the process. We tend not to speak so much about participation. The citizens are the commissioners; they have a crucial role in all the steps of the project. They set the criteria for choosing the artist, they decide on the type of work to be conceived and on many other parameters. We give advice, share our network, our experience and conceptual knowledge, but it is their project. In my view this is a more fundamental involvement than what we often refer to when we speak about participatory art.
You said earlier that to your taste the artistic outcomes of some of the projects in the New Patrons program have been less interesting, but that an art critic, for instance, should judge the projects on the basis of the process in its totality?
We should not trade in the quality of the process for the quality of the artistic work, or vice versa. What I meant to express was that critics will not grasp much of a project’s nature and impact if they only look at the outcome and neglect its genesis. The social and political context is often crucial for a precise description of what is there in terms of art.
On the level of cultural politics, though, it is less important for me to be convinced by each and every outcome, since I feel stronger about people not being systematically excluded from the privilege of cultural production in the first place.
Who is the mediator? Can anyone potentially become one?
Mediators can best play their role if they have experience with conceiving and producing ambitious art projects and at the same time are committed to understanding local needs and conditions. They have to act responsibly within their relationship with the citizens, with the artists, and with third parties like politicians, funders or the press. So not everyone can be a good mediator. But good mediators can be very different people from very different backgrounds. I’d say it requires a set of experiences and personal qualities. One of those is a good balance between modesty and chutzpa, depending on what a given group of people or project needs at a certain moment in time.
That said, anyone can become a mediator. The New Patrons Protocol is an open source art work conceived by François Hers. Thus, anyone who wishes to do so can appropriate and use the New Patrons model.
In Norway the usual procedure would be that the state agency Public Art Norway appoints a consultant, who then finds the appropriate artist or artwork in dialogue with representatives of the users. How does the New Patrons model differ from this approach?
First of all, the mediator would not come up with an idea and then involve the people who might be concerned; here it’s the other way around. A mediator would first of all listen to a community, or just to a single person, in order to understand why something should be done and to what end. A mediator’s quality is her or his capacity to see what is at stake and then come up with a proposal that might be able to transform the given situation in such a way that the citizen’s intentions are met, or challenged and shifted in a productive way. Art is not a service agency.
In your example I would have suggested that the state institution should hire a mediator who would start a dialogue within the community to see if members of that community intend to take action in renegotiating and reshaping the place in question. If they don’t there will be no project. If they do – which is typically what happens – their initiative will set the parameters for the project. If the state institution wants to overcome top-down hierarchies, this is one way to go. And I believe it is good for the institution to take on the role as public administrator, letting the core issues of the project come from the people who are directly concerned.