ART / Art at your convenience: There is more to commissioning public art than picking up the phone and booking an artist. Dalya Alberge looks at a new course for training those responsible for spending the money

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The Independent Culture
The idea of a course in commissioning contemporary art would have been unthinkable - even laughable - 10 years ago. In October, the subject will be taught at MA degree level, at the Royal College of Art.

It is the first course of its kind in the world and is aimed at budding administrators, curators and commissioners within galleries, public art agencies and local authorities. The climatic change of the Eighties - with a better outlook for public support of the visual arts - inspired the RCA, Arts Council and Tate Gallery to devise it.

In the past decade, bodies such as the Birmingham Public Art Commissions Agency and London's Public Art Development Trust have been commissioning art for government departments (most recently, the new social security building in Leeds), local authorities (for example, a major arts programme along half a mile of Lewisham High Street) and private developers (the award-winning Broadgate Centre). But the course organisers felt that the increase in the number of commissioned pieces (several million pounds' worth today, compared with a few thousand a decade ago) was not always matched by quality.

As Teresa Gleadowe, the course leader, puts it, it is difficult to point to many examples of 'great' commissioned works. Too often, she says, commissioners settle for a community-produced mural, while too many local authorities appoint people without any real knowledge of art to put 'a nice bit of art' in a town centre. For James Lingwood, co-director of Artangel, which commissions temporary works of art, the overall impression of public art is one of 'mediocrity or banality . . .'

The course organisers maintain that until commissioning becomes a serious, professional business, artistic standards will not improve. However, the reaction from some quarters to the new course has been more cynical. How, critics ask, can anyone learn such a subject in a classroom? Isn't it, rather, a skill you have to pick up on the job, starting from the bottom within a museum, a public art agency or a local authority? After all, nothing beats the hands-on experience of working with artists, looking endlessly at art, doing studio-crawls and walking round a site with a hard hat on your head. And, as art is, ultimately, subjective, how can a course improve artistic standards?

The course organisers and public art commissioners were reluctant to give an example of the kind of art that students would - or should - be taught to eliminate. 'The best people will manage to sidestep such a course,' says Joshua Compston, a 22-year-old Courtauld graduate who was commissioned by the Benjamin Rhodes gallery to commission and curate its latest abstract exhibition; he trained himself, he says, by relying on interest and intuition.

But 'interest and intuition', say those who have been there and done it, simply isn't enough to see you through the complicated business of commissioning. Apart from inspecting a site and whittling down thousands of artists and craftsmen to a short list which meets the client's brief, commissioning involves securing planning permission and working closely with architects, engineers, site owners and health and safety officers. Whether dealing with private or public commissions, it requires business acumen to cope with fund-raising and budgets, and legal knowledge for drafting contracts.

The course organisers accept that they cannot prepare students for every eventuality and that each project poses individual problems. 'You cannot foresee problems like paint not drying quickly enough for an artist to meet a deadline,' says Petronella Silver of the Contemporary Art Society, which commissions through its corporate art programme. 'You cannot teach them what it's really like to have a deadline on which millions of pounds depend. But you can be taught to allow for setbacks.'

Professor Christopher Frayling, the course director, concedes that an art choice has to be subjective but adds, 'There is not just taste, but informed taste and ill-informed taste.' He sees his job as training marriage-brokers to match the right artist with the right site and the right client.

Through the RCA, students will work with a variety of lecturers, curators and artists. The RCA has been particularly keen to take on students with some previous work experience. Of the 10 entrants (out of 120 applications), many are mid-career, trained in museum heritage or publicity; the first intake includes Sheena Etches, press officer of Bristol's Arnolfini gallery since 1990.

By creating a course that couples commissioning with curating, Frayling hopes to close the unnatural divide between the two, long seen as two different disciplines. 'Most large museums aren't very good at promoting contemporary art,' he says. 'They are good on the heritage. They know a lot about Velazquez, but fear the contemporary scene. Part of the problem is that books have not yet put contemporary artists into boxes and made them 'isms'. They are not yet art- history-speak.'

It will be two years before the class of '92 put what they have learnt into practice. Even then, gallery work will depend on a healthy economy. Meanwhile, perhaps the most valuable lesson they will learn is something of the taste of the man in the street, the ultimate judge of the art they commission and the one whose opinions will be sought through the course's market research programme. As Petronella Silver of the CAS put it, you can't plonk a masterpiece in the middle of a square and hope everyone likes it. Silver cites Richard Serra's Fulcrum - a tower of three metal slabs in London's Broadgate Centre - as an example of a successful private commission. Those who have seen people showing their appreciation by peeing on it may see it only as an example of a successful public convenience. 'So what?' she says. 'Just because people pee in phone boxes doesn't mean that phone boxes are not liked.'

Course details from The Registrar, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 (071-584 5020)

(Photographs omitted)