Perspectives on commissioning Christian Art (3)

Dr. James Bettley spoke at commission4mission’s recent Study Day from the perspective of those advising on the commissioning contemporary art for churches:

Commissioning contemporary art for a church is just about the most difficult thing that a PCC may have to do. It is in a different league from most other decisions because of the element of choice and the sense that it involves discretionary spending. In addition, those involved are unlikely to have had any previous experience of commissioning or to know the world of arts and crafts. As a result, they are likely to need all the advice they can get.

Within the Church of England there is not much that a church can do in this area without getting a faculty. Faculties ensure that: buildings and contents are kept in the best condition for future generations; work is done to a good standard; and wardens and incumbents are protected from personal liability.

Discussion with the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) is therefore essential and their role is to advise everyone involved in the application, from the PCC to the Chancellor who ultimately grants the faculty. DACs have been nicknamed the ‘Damned Awkward Committee’ but they actually exist in order to show parishes what can be done.

The DACs first reaction to a commission application will be, “Fantastic, tell us more.” The DAC Design Awards encourage churches to use individual artists and craftspeople. St Albans Romford is an example of a church going down this route and, as a result, gaining many awards. Commissioning original work may be more expensive but will give better value for money in terms of pleasure and quality, so the DAC is favourably disposed towards commissioning and will steer parishes down this path.

The issue of whether to commission original work or to purchase wares from a Church furnishing company derives from the development of Church furnishing companies in the nineteenth century. Their establishment was a reaction against indiscriminate gifts that churches had felt obliged to accept. Churches should set standards as to what can be given and steer donors towards those items that are needed by the church.

William Morris said, “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” What is useful in church can also be beautiful, and perhaps should be as churches are special public buildings. Over the years, churches often accumulate artworks but these are often overlooked, taken for granted and unrecognised because they have not been gathered together and sensitively displayed as with works in a museum or gallery. Churches have much to learn from galleries and museums which are warm, dry, sensitively lit and containing interpretation of the works displayed. Revd. Ernest Geldart of St Nicholas Little Braxted said that, “God’s house ought to be the finest house and most beautiful house in the parish.”

How can we determine what is beautiful though? DAC members have a range of relevant experience to draw on in providing advice. Because they have a great deal of joint experience, they have a good idea of what will work well.

Stained glass is particularly tricky because a cartoon cannot depict colours in light or the absence of light. The essential thing is to look at a range of each artist’s work. Advice can also be given on framing, lighting etc; again all in consultation with the artist. There is no point in commissioning if too tight a brief is given to the artist. The CHURCHart website has a directory of artists and is a useful source of information. Don’t rush into a commission, look around before commissioning a specific artist. Some areas hold open days for artists which it can be useful to attend. Despite all this alot of art in churches is mediocre.
In the nineteenth century, when much church building and restoration was undertaken, it was considered essential that the architect had to have a faith. Artists in earlier times were also devout Christians. However, those who are not Christians can nevertheless produce work that is appropriate for churches. We have a tendency to select artists on the strength of their faith meaning that those in the pool of artists with a faith tend to do more and more work for churches. We should consider that good artists are not necessarily good Christians and good Christians not necessarily good artists.