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Commissioning the contemporary: museum brands, art trends and creative networks

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posted on 12.04.2021, 09:28 by Franziska Wilmsen

This thesis examines how contemporary art institutions use commissioning to fashion their identities and collaborate on art production within a range of complex networks. The scope of the enquiry covers commissioning by public and private museums, non-profit art galleries, and hybrid institutions funded by a combination of private and public monies. The geographical scope of the analysis covers art organisations in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with a representative selection of case studies from 1997 to the present. Though the earliest examples discussed in this thesis date from the 1990s, museum commissioning as a stand-alone practice has been neglected in scholarship and has been primarily understood as a recapitulation of historical forms of art patronage familiar from the Renaissance. This thesis fills this scholarly lacuna by showing that commissioning in the twenty-first century has developed through ramified social, cultural and economic networks that complicate and, in some cases, challenge this historical model. In contrast to descriptive studies, the thesis offers a critical examination of key trends in contemporary art commissioning by contextualising this practice in relevant art historical, sociological, and economic theories. It then combines this approach with analyses of pertinent case studies enriched by empirical data and first-hand insights from interviews with museum professionals. The thesis illuminates the interdependency of institutions and artists under the guise of collaboration as well as the affinity between commissioning programmes and economic principles of the art market. The analysis not only shows the extent to which particular styles of artistic production shape popular conceptions of museums of contemporary art, but also addresses how institutional involvement in commissioning affects styles of creativity and canon formation. Accordingly, the enquiry maps out and probes the role of museums in the commissioning process and shows how these institutions communicate an image of themselves by actively sharing in processes of art production and publicising their relationships with selected artists. The analysis demonstrates the positive and negative implications of this museum activity and thereby adds to scholarship in the field of museum studies. The theoretical part of the enquiry problematises institutional commissioning through the lens of recent ideas on museum brands, trends in art production, collecting and canon diversity, and art world networks. The thesis argues that in its contemporary incarnation commissioning is a far more intricately managed venture than has been accounted for in scholarship. This complexity is revealed through analyses of museum programming and marketing, the promotion of commissioned work, and museum-artist interactions. Taken together, these activities create a framework for the production, communication, and interpretation of newly commissioned art. By situating commissioning within museums’ wider collecting and exhibition processes, this study sheds light on a range of collaborative networks that include museum personnel, artists, collectors, and art market professionals. By examining the social, cultural, economic, and legal implications of commissioning, the thesis contributes new insight into the role of art institutions as active agents in the creation and promotion of art.



  • Social Sciences and Humanities


  • Communication and Media


Loughborough University

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© Franziska Wilmsen

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.




Kathryn Brown ; Craig Richardson

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