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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue
Art The Irving Sandler Essay

Operation New Patrons

The Irving Sandler Essay Series
Edited by Alexander Nagel

This essay series, generously supported by Scott Lynn, is named in honor of the art historian and critic Irving Sandler, whose broad spirit was epitomized in the question he would ask, with searching eyes, whenever he met someone or saw someone again: what are you thinking about? A space apart from the press of current events, the Sandler Essay invites artists and writers to reflect on what matters to them now, whether it is current or not, giving a chance for an “oblique contemporary” to come in view.


Prefatory note
Alexander Nagel

For the Sandler Essay in our summer issue, I offer my translation of a writing by François Hers, an artist and the founder of Les Nouveaux Commanditaires, in English, New Patrons, a program of community-driven artistic production. Since its creation over three decades ago, the program has produced hundreds of artworks in Europe and beyond. Each commission puts into effect a protocol devised by Hers that encapsulates an artistic philosophy, so that the entire program can be thought of as a single, ever-expanding artwork. New Patrons is a new modality for organizing contemporary artistic production in response to a demand for art issuing from outside the art world. In this sense, it recalls a pre-capitalist mode of art production in which art was actuated by commissions, requiring a constant attuning of artistic gestures to external realities.

The essay by Hers below lays out the principles and protocols of this revolutionary program, which remains largely unknown in the United States, a model of “engaged” art quite different from the forms of participatory art known here, where the artistic work is typically formulated by the artist or the artistic institution and then made available for public use or participation. An art commission managed by the New Patrons begins neither with an artist’s proposal, nor with a commission from a museum or other institution interested in introducing art into spaces beyond the white cube. Instead, it begins with a demand for art on the part of a specific community. The community is the agent that takes the first, crucial step of realizing that what is needed is an artwork, whatever that might turn out to be, even if it may seem that a fabricator, an interior designer, or an architect could fulfill the practical requirements of the job. The New Patrons organization receives the request and connects the community to an artist, launching a process of dialogue, proposals, revisions, and, often enough, disputes. The community is thereby introduced to the logic and modalities of a world of art that in most cases it had never encountered before. In the other direction, the artists are displaced from the context of art institutions and forced to adapt, sometimes radically, their criteria of what an artwork is, and what their art is.

The main goal for Hers was to move beyond the vestigial notion that the artist bears sole responsibility for conceiving works of art (even if the artist is aided and enabled by the institutions that have arisen around the post-Romantic conception of the artist). The demand for art remains vital and urgent in communities, he affirms, but remains mostly untapped due to the historic dislocation of the art world from the larger society.

There is no way to describe this new model of artistic production and community engagement that is clearer than the excellent videos on the New Patrons website, which document how individual commissions progressed:, I also refer readers to a discussion held at the Institute of Fine Arts in 2014, with representatives of the New Patrons and of the American organization Creative Time:

Operation New Patrons

Over millennia, existing political and religious regimes have asked the arts to give physical and visible forms that reflected their aspirations, beliefs, and ideals. Six centuries ago, in the European Renaissance, a new story emerged that put artists and philosophers into a “modern” relationship to the world, distanced and critical, opening the way to the exploration of the world and to an exponential development of science and technology. This ambition to emancipate all modes of perception of the world and to free personal expression made it possible for artists to give form to newly imagined singularities—an affirmation of the individual in works of irreducible originality. Left without interlocutors in the gestation of a work, artists had to find their own precursors or appeal to an internal necessity to find a reason to make art, freeing themselves from the established conventions, answering only to their own requirements and those of their art, often at the risk of social marginalization. The individualized artist in their isolation could then become a mirror in which a triumphant bourgeoisie could recognize itself, a figure of exemplary freedom in the era of Romanticism, in which the artist offered the highest expression of which humanity was capable. The work acquired a sacred dimension and the artist the halo of a hero or martyr.

How to reintegrate “art into life"—this is the question that has preoccupied so many artists of my generation and to which we could not find an answer, because it was not to be found in the form of an attitude or of a work but, instead, in the desire for an art that functions within society itself, even in reaches of society far from the art world. It was always this wider public that held the key. They were the ones who needed to be invited onto the stage of art, where expression is at its freest, where one’s actions are both self-determined and unpredictable, and where thought and debate cannot remain speculative but must be translated into action—where it is necessary to make work. The world of theater tried to open up in this way, as did certain efforts of interactive artistic performance, but what was needed was a New Protocol that would make the public a full-fledged actor by granting it an essential responsibility in the generation of art, by making it in fact the raison d’être for a work of art. This was the Protocol I elaborated as the foundation of the program known as Les Nouveaux Commanditaires, or New Patrons, which since 1990 has produced hundreds of artistic projects throughout Europe and now in Africa. Such a Protocol gives the public a responsibility of equal weight to that of the artist, who responds to the artistic commission by inventing forms that meet its demands. Or do they? A dialogue between the community commissioning the art on the one side and the artist responding to the need on the other, a dialogue for which space is held by a mediator—this is the crucible in which the artwork becomes what it is.

Let us see more in detail who does what, in a scenario of art-making that can take place anywhere and where community needs are addressed through the commissioning of art.

The citizen-patron

The “new patron” is, by definition, a person or group of people who are given credit for knowing what they want and for knowing how to make themselves understood. This is why, under this Protocol, they are given the responsibility of having recognized the very need for making art. And this is a first! Never did the political and religious powers of the earlier era have to justify themselves when commissioning art, nor did the artists of the modern era have to articulate their desire to create. But, under the current conditions, a person who has no other qualifications than that of citizen cannot by themselves ensure and expect that a demand for art coming from them should be taken seriously. It is the Protocol that makes a dialogue possible, a dialogue among all the actors involved.

Under this Protocol, no one is expected to know the history of art, or the discourse of the contemporary art world, in order to have the understanding of a creative need. The experience of a lived situation provides it and gives the words to express it and to act, and that ultimately gives to communities the freedom that has traditionally been reserved for artists as a cultural right. There is no need to be a connoisseur to have the sense for the potential of art and its capacity to transform a situation, to reinvent it. In fact, this intuition is widely shared. Contrary to the generally accepted view, when the public enters into the role of being the sponsor or patron of artistic making, it is striking how little inclined they are to limit the scope of the creative intervention, and how welcoming they are of solutions that exceed what they could imagine. Not only do they assume the risks of the creation, making themselves accountable for the committed funds, but they engage actively in the debates that are inevitably provoked by the work or by their own intervention in public life, an intervention they make not as elected officials or as art-world professionals, but only with the authority that comes from the awareness of a need to act toward a common end, even or especially if that end involves debate.

What are these sponsors asking for? Each artistic commission is a story that arises from the need to redefine relations to the world and among people, a story that testifies to the eternal need to give form to an identity of a group or place and to have it recognized; the need to give present-day form to a memory or to knowledge, in order to preserve and transmit it; to give contemporary and dignified form to a relationship with time and death. Each commission manifests a profound need for integration into a community, for solidarity and justice, and, urgently, a need for larger-than-individual insight to better understand a situation and work through a problem. And then, finally, each commission manifests an astonishing confidence placed in the artist to answer the need by producing an attuned and forceful work. A desire for beautiful things and high-quality spaces may be part of what is wanted, yet these commissions do more than provide baubles or distracting entertainment, instead providing a pathway for an ambitious project that one would never have undertaken otherwise. The truth is that in our society art remains a serious matter, far from the irony and disenchantment often seen in the art world!

Each group of actors has their stories, which you can hear about in the video documentation of the program’s many commissions.1 The common truth is that all these communities that become patrons through the Protocol have had and will have good reasons to identify a need for art, whether they are firemen, astrophysicists, students or high school pupils, psychoanalysts, roofers, butchers, farmers, teachers, lawyers, fishermen, social workers, monks, bankers, market sellers, activists, veterans, locally elected officials and those in charge of institutions that are similarly engaged. The artist called upon to respond to this demand can be local or can arrive from Los Angeles or Tokyo to respond to a request that may come from the inhabitants of a small, isolated village as well as from a suburb or a major city.

The artist

The artists take on the responsibility that has always belonged to them: to create forms! But here they create forms in response to needs that come from outside them, and that they recognize as having a relationship to commitments of their own. They step out of the familiar institutional frameworks of the art world, frameworks that have become a nearly tyrannical internalized routine, and begin to participate in a different process where they can find themselves making work at a scale and according to unfamiliar procedures that release unexpected capacities in their work. The new situation of meeting a demand that comes from the world produces a new awareness of the responsibility they have taken on, in contrast to the traditional mode where artists have only to account for themselves.

Modernity granted artists an unheard-of freedom to create without any formal limits, and the debates go on about what was lost in the process. By making that freedom meet a responsibility to address a real situation, and by making art through real critical debate (rather than presenting the work as a fait accompli, to which critics respond in the usual way) artistic practice expands in dialogue with real cultural problems, whatever their complexity and their diversity, thus giving a new historical range, and now a common sense, to the artist’s freedom of creation. The artists find themselves writing a new story, that of an art in the age of the democracy which, by the richness of its proposals and the diversity of its pathways, will have nothing to envy of the great artistic eras of the past.

This Protocol realizes a relationship between a society in the form of a community with a voice and the work of contemporary artists in a way that has proved elusive until now. How simple it is to have a collaboration—a contested, not always harmonious collaboration, but a collaboration nonetheless—where the decision to introduce art into social life becomes that of partners assuming their respective responsibilities.

In this Protocol, artists do not compete for the commission with an already developed proposal. A mediator in consultation with the self-appointed patrons have chosen the artist on the basis of a review of earlier work they have done that suggest the appropriate skills and sensibility for the request they have identified. Once identified and approached, the prospective artists then may assess for themselves whether or not they are interested in becoming involved. And then the dialogue and the process are launched. In the rare event that the collaboration breaks down, then another artist is found who will launch a new person-to-person dialogue, addressing all the issues raised by the project, until a joint decision is made to produce the work conceived by the new artist.

This is a paradigm shift in the role of the artist, a shift that is already native to so much of the practice being undertaken by a younger generation of artists, for whom social engagement does not stand against individual expression but rather enables it.

The mediator-producer

The mediator is the third term in the Protocol, an actor called upon to assume an unprecedented and major role in both art and democracy. During the decades of activity of the New Patrons program, through hundreds of projects, being a mediator has proven to be more than a job—it is a vocation made up of wide-ranging commitments. More than curators, mediators are messengers who go to the field to make known to communities the existence of a new possibility to act and exercise a right. They are politicians who listen, evaluate the relevance of a request, and then take a stake in it. They are diplomats who bring together people from different worlds, participants whose number will continue to grow over the course of the action, guaranteeing that they can act with respect for each other’s conceptions and convictions and that they will not be subjected to any political or commercial instrumentalization. They are interpreters who must see in a proposed commission an implicit call to an appropriate artist who has particular skills and works in particular media, and who then bring back and interpret the artist’s proposal for the patrons. They are professionals who know and know how to make room for the requirements of a work and of a form of contemporary research. They are producers who guide the negotiations with a mastery of the technical, legal and financial data necessary to bring a work’s production to a successful conclusion. They are communicators who know how to go about embedding the initiative into the community for which it is intended, and beyond.

Finally, these mediators have the qualities of a director able to manage the tensions of a never-ending debate, a debate that reaches a breaking point when they themselves judge that it is not fruitful to pursue it, or when they discover, for example, that a given commission can hide another one that addresses as yet unspoken but more essential stakes; or when the artist asks the patrons to revise their specifications and try another approach to the problem; or when the sponsors themselves ask the artist to revise a project that they deem does not demonstrate a clear understanding of the problem; or when they themselves are taken to task by their community for disturbing public life.

These are debates that in truth frighten no one! The artists appreciate having to go further than they had imagined, and the patrons appreciate discovering that they can allow themselves to be here, in this process, and to manifest themselves as citizens who have agency—emancipated citizens.

  1. See the video documentaries at ,


Alexander Nagel

Alexander Nagel is a Professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

François Hers

François Hers is a Belgian photographer and artist.


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