© Nigel Green

by Katrina Houghton 

Public commissions can be a fantastic opportunity for photographers, but who actually benefits? The community-enriching intentions of publicly funded work can provide an inspiring creative landscape to work within, however the process is not without a few concerns. With deep financial cuts, national photographic archives under threat and many organisations finding it increasingly difficult to pay photographers a full commercial fee, it is all too often the quality and legacy of work that is sacrificed. A debate led by Redeye Photography Network at the Bluecoat in Liverpool during LOOK15 brought to the forefront the deliberations of photographers and organisations alike, provoking discussion into how we can promote healthier commissioning relationships that benefit all. 

'Commissions give photographers the confidence to go and do further work' Anne McNeill of Impressions Gallery tells us, citing Martin Parr (whose first show was at the gallery in 1972) and Mark Power who both began their careers through the aid of public investment.  

It is undeniable that public commissions play a vital role in encouraging creative innovation. They can provide an incubator for creative talent, offering opportunities to photographers near the beginning of their career to showcase their work whilst being exposed to those with the experience to help them develop their practice. However the landscape of public commissions has evolved in recent decades. For example in the early 70s most publicly funded work was supported through organisations such as the Arts Council. This often functioned with the photographer submitting their proposal and the commissioner paying a fee. What happened thereafter was largely down to the photographers themselves. All too often their work was sold through the private market leaving little return on investment or acknowledgement of the public organisation that supported their inception. This is an imminent concern that is still relevant today and largely a consequence of the lack of a national policy safeguarding our public investment in photography. 

'This is important not just at first project delivery, because this is publicly funded work that should always retain its legacy' explains Celia Davies of Photoworks in Brighton. 

Public commissions are different from producing your own work. As an artist, self-funding your own practice, you can work to your own agendas. You don’t necessarily have to consider the needs of a community in the way a publicly funded organisation will have to, where the work is commissioned to benefit a wider social community. Yet, we must question to what extent these communities are really reaping the benefits when organisations are unable to retain and protect work that could be reinvested into developing new talent. 

It is estimated that organisations in regular receipt of Arts Council funding commissioned 27,913 new works from 14,758 artists in the UK during the financial year 2011-12. Though the Olympics must be taken into consideration during that time and this figure includes a range of art forms, we are still talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money spent on developing talent with no clear strategy for what happens to the work in the future. The creative industries are worth a spectacular £76.9bn per year to the UK economy, yet under the hot glare of public spending cutbacks, the arts are increasingly feeling the pinch. It’s easy to see why commissioning new work and safeguarding its future isn’t at the top of our national spending agenda when we are currently also in a battle against national health and social cuts. However if we are going to be frugal it is has never been so essential that our artistic investments are recognised for their worth.  

McNeill states, 'There have been hundreds of photos commissioned but where do they all go?'  

Archiving and storage of commissioned work is a problem. Public institutions that try to address this need, such as the Library of Birmingham, are under threat. It is problematic that many institutions don’t have the facilities or indeed the funds to support the adequate storage of the work they commission. Often the work is returned to the artist who might also not possess suitable facilities, and this can result in damage to the work and a loss for those involved in its creation.  

Photographer Colin McPherson of Document Scotland tells us there is a 'risk to the artist' that needs to be addressed. Often the fee paid to the photographer being commissioned barely matches minimum wage once travel expenses and materials are considered. McPherson highlights that this leaves the artist in a vulnerable position particularly when faced with what happens to the work once the project is complete. It’s critical that artists and photographers continue to benefit from future financial transactions concerning the work. 

Clearer guidelines and a national policy should lead to better quality and more interesting public commissions. Publicly funded work should be a showcase of the most innovative emerging talent, overcoming the private sector’s reluctance to invest in risky projects. However when budgets are tight and it is a choice between the more established or lesser known, the money is likely to go to the safer commission that can attract the largest audience and bring in greatest return. Hardly a catalyst for an inspiring creative landscape, our commissioning decisions should not be based upon a necessity to survive, they should encourage us to evolve. This raises questions surrounding the effectiveness of our funding models, the lack of national policy and the desperate need for sustainable and national archives of photography. 

If we need any more convincing as to how a national policy and archive would benefit our communities we should look back at similar initiatives that have stood the test of time. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) is regarded as one of the most influential public photography collections ever collated in American history. Set up as an initiative to generate compassion amongst Americans for those affected by the Great Depression, this government program fostered a remarkable collection of over 80,000 photographs of America between 1934 and 1944. The work grew from the Information Division of the FSA, which was responsible for providing educational materials and press information to the public. Led by Roy Stryker, the FSA photography project nurtured many of the most influential photographers of the past century including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks to name a few. The work created under this initiative is outstanding even today and that is down to not only the quality of work, but also because the collection has been protected and made widely available. Since the work was produced for the government, any print from the collection can be purchased from the Library of Congress for a fee. This policy has protected the work and the photographers involved and built a legacy that society the world over will benefit from for generations to come. 

So how do we move forward towards a better future for public photography commissions that benefit all?  

What is apparent from this debate is that public organisations need to come  together to build best practice, in doing so sharing knowledge around commissioning and archives and ultimately an enlightened policy. This event alone has sparked opportunities for progression and more time is needed together to safeguard the future of our commissions. This is already happening to an extent with Amber Collective and Side Gallery, Newcastle, Impressions Gallery, Bradford, LOOK: Liverpool International Photography Festival, North East Photography Network (NEPN), Sunderland, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool and Redeye, the Photography Network, Manchester joining forces under the Northern Photography Consortium. The collaboration has been made possible through the Arts Council offering an award of £149,691 as part of their Catalyst Arts: building fundraising capacity initiative that will help each organisation to work together with aims to increase knowledge of fundraising and build extra income for each organisation. This in turn should allow galleries a greater capacity to retain and protect the work they commission, whilst strengthening the photographic landscape. 

Although collaboration is a wise move to ensure a better future to protect the legacy of our national public photography commissions, it is also essential to recognise that each public art commission is unique and so any policy created should allow for diversity and difference. It is not an overnight task but offering a basic structure of essential ingredients that all contracting members can negotiate on is a necessary step forward. Encompassing guidelines that ensure fabrication, maintenance, ownership and copyright are met fairly would guarantee effective documentation of the history and future of our public investment into photography. Of course this would require space, staff, and further discussion to ensure a common interest is met but that can only mean more benefits to all those involved.  


Celia Davies from Photoworks: Guiding Principals for Commissioning 

Commissioning new photography is one of Photoworks’ most important activities, and it can be complex and challenging to get everything right. While every commission is different, Celia outlined her guiding principals for maintaining the fairest and most equitable relationship between all parties involved. 

Accurate accreditation: 

While copyright always stays with the artist, accreditation needs to reflect what’s involved in a commission, and should stick to the work forever - the artist, and where appropriate the commissioners, collectors, place of exhibition and sale details need to be credited. Time and expertise invested in a commission - technical, marketing, curatorial, legal support - also needs to be respected and quantified. 

Investment in risk: 

The commissioner should actively support new ideas and risk, and make it clear to all parties that the outcomes might not be known at the start. That’s what makes commissioning exciting. That investment in risk generates exposure, discourse and review for the work and artist. 


The commission needs to include consideration of the life and legacy of the work. Consult and agree on further showings and visibility for the work strategically - which venues and partners are most appropriate? - And recognise the increased value this gives the work. Care and preservation of the work should be built in - not just physical work but digital too. The work needs to remain accessible for its lifetime. 


What is fair? Payment to the artist is most important but there also needs to be a return on investment for the commissioner if the work is sold later on the art market. These percentages need to be considered at the outset. 

Katrina Houghton is an artist and journalist working in Manchester, you can follow her on Twitter @KatrinaHoughton. This piece is produced as part of Katrina's involvement in the CVAN NW Critical Writing ProgrammeRead more about Katrina's place on the programme here.


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