June 8, 2010 / 5:03 PM / 9 years ago

Economy could take toll on commissioned US artwork

* Commissioned art part of U.S. company images, marketing

* Commissions smaller, specialized as economy has impact

By Christopher Michaud

NEW YORK, June 8 (Reuters) - Economic woes have pinched the pockets of wealthy art patrons, but artists who rely on those commissions say they are surviving, albeit with more specialized works and smaller payoffs.

In a time of tight budgets, commissioning a work of art for commercial or corporate spaces like Rockefeller Center must dovetail with a company’s marketing strategy and promote its public image, not just soothe charitable urges.

“They’re still doing it, but the commissions are smaller. There’s no question,” said Anne Pasternak, president and artistic director of Creative Time, a New York-based nonprofit organization that commissions public art works.

But, she added, if commissioned art is not already core to the mission of a company or business, “they’re not going to start now or are at least hesitant to start.”

Since the recession hit the United States, highly specialized and one-of-a-kind art commissions have experienced an uptick, said David Maupin of New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery which handles several artists who work on commissions.

He cited British artist Tracey Emin’s recent limited-availability “portrait commissions,” in which collectors answered 15 questions and she made drawings that were turned into neon sculptures.

“Collectors are seeking something special, and more personal, for their investment,” Maupin said.

Artist Teresita Fernandez, whose high-profile commissioned works can be seen at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park and the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, said she sees “significant demand for large, site-specific commissioned work.”

“I love working this way,” she said. “People who commission large works are willing to take risks and are on board for the ambitious artistic vision.”

A more far-reaching impact of the recession is likely to be felt on U.S. art commissions years ahead, experts note, because a commissioned piece can take years to complete after money is allocated. A lack of funding now may mean less art later.

Other commissioned work, such as artist Julie Mehretu’s monumental “Mural,” a multimillion-dollar work installed this year in the lobby of Goldman Sachs, was commissioned before the 2008 financial crisis, in which the bank was deeply involved.

The year 2009 was particularly hard, said Creative Time’s Pasternak. “A lot of our individual supporters lost a lot of their wealth, and others worried about losing their jobs cut their support,” she said.

‘IMAGE BUILDING AND BRAND BUILDING’

When companies approach commissioning now, they tend to look at commercial gain, said Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s’ international co-head of post-war and contemporary art.

“Corporations used to do it as a kind of civic philanthropy,” she said. “Now they’re also looking into it as image building and brand building.”

Businesses like hotels and restaurants “want to tie it to their style and interior designs,” she said. Hotel chain Sage Hospitality, for example, is hanging works by local artists in guest rooms.

While the investment in commissions can be substantial, so can the payoff, experts said. New York’s Public Art Fund’s “Waterfalls” project, in which man-made waterfalls were installed in the East River two years ago, cost more than $15 million.

But officials estimate that the project, by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, brought $70 million to the local economy during its four-month run. A series of major commissions by the Public Art Fund is planned for the fall.

At the World Trade Center site, one of New York’s most visible and well-known new developments, $50 million has been released to build the Ground Zero Arts Center, a cultural and performing arts venue.

Established artist Jeff Koons created a sculpture at 7 World Trade Center, and conceptual artist Jenny Holzer created an animated installation of prose and poetry that scrolls across a glass wall in the lobby.

But a spokesman for Silverstein Properties, which is developing the site where the twin towers stood and has been involved in extensive debate over its future, said it was too early to discuss commissioned art for the new towers. (Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and David Storey)

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