When the first mediators went through French villages in 1992 to inspire people there to commission works of art, mediation experts shook their heads.
Why would people who lived far from the major art capitals want to work with artists? Weren't the citizens of a shrinking small town interested in more important things than, of all things, contemporary art? And why should artists be concerned with civic issues at all?
How did it come about? In 1990, Fondation de France, a unique philanthropic network that has been supporting charitable initiatives of social importance in France since 1969, was looking for an innovative model for a contemporary form of democratic cultural support oriented toward the common good.
It commissioned François Hers, a Belgian artist who had previously initiated and implemented significant structural changes in the cultural sector (see DATAR), to develop an idea. His response to this challenge was the Protocol of the New Patrons (Le Protocol des Nouveaux Commanditaires), which he wrote in 1990 and which was implemented from 1991 by the Fondation de France in a specially developed funding program.
Hers' approach was as simple as it was groundbreaking: a democratic culture would have to take citizens' will as its starting point instead of state or institutional guidelines. The whole logic of cultural production and promotion would have to be expanded and turned from institutional head to civic feet.
This approach of democratic civil society would enable citizens to set essential impulses, and it would be society itself, in all its breadth and diversity, that would have to face up to the responsibility of deciding locally in each case which cultural goods and artistic experiments it needs, which expression of itself it wants to give shape to. It would be the task of politics and institutions to create the necessary framework conditions for this.
Hers' cultural policy coup:
- His 1990 protocol provided, on a single A4 page, a simple model for action that would implement this paradigm shift in the production and promotion of art and culture. And it did so in a way that everyone could understand.
- By proposing that citizens take on the role of commissioners of artistic projects, he gave them a powerful position that did not consist in becoming artistically active themselves (he thus avoided the recurring misunderstanding that an art of democracy consisted primarily in involving civil society directly in creative work), but rather in taking on the role of the old patrons who until now determined what (public) art was created: cultural committees, expert commissions, museum curators, wealthy individuals or companies. As New Patrons, according to Hers' proposal, citizens would take on this task themselves in the future, and with it the responsibility that goes with this task.
- In his protocol, François Hers emphasized the creative independence of the artists and thus made it clear that their historically achieved autonomy was not called into question. They did not have to bow to the will of the citizens and expectations of participation, but were, on the contrary, invited to competently answer citizens' commissions with their own free means and to cooperate with their patrons accordingly – in other words, a dialogue at eye level.
Another innovation of Hers' protocol lay in the invention of a new role model that had not yet been formally written and named in this consequence: the role of the mediator. The French term médiation is used for politicians as well as for art mediators or for mediators of conflicts – an authority that builds bridges, establishes trust and understanding, shares knowledge and points out ways of resolution.
In Hers' protocol, this term and this practice take on a special meaning: mediation here means the moderation of cooperation between citizens' groups and artists, but also funders and public administrators, and furthermore the contribution of one's own (curatorial) expertise in matters of contemporary art.
In the action model of the New Patrons, the mediators play the key role alongside the civic New Patrons groups. Without them, the projects would not get off the ground and into the world; without them, the lines of connection between the actors and resources that are needed to implement the civic commissions would not emerge.
This also describes why the mediators in the New Patrons model are not to be confused with professional groups of the same name who specialize in conflict work, peace work in war zones, or mediation in extrajudicial proceedings, and who have often studied this as well. For citizen-commissioned art, the term mediation means competent process design in the sense of civic and artistic interests – which, however, regularly includes conflict management, because democratic negotiation processes become productive in the handling of conflicts.
Consequently, what François Hers' protocol described as mediation has become a profession in its own right. The first universities offer special training, and in Germany a curriculum has been developed for a corresponding advanced training course. There are currently around one hundred mediators active internationally, around 20 of them in Germany.
Back to 1991, Xavier Duroux, director of the Consortium art center in Dijon, was the first professional curator and art mediator to become active as a mediator in the New Patrons model, accompanying and facilitating around 80 projects until his death in 2017. He was considered an example by many.
Based on the commitment of many citizens and the continuous support of the Fondation de France and a growing number of municipalities and counties (“départements”), the model of citizen-comissioned art spread over the years across France, where more than 350 projects have been created to date.
From France, the idea of the New Patrons Protocol spread. In 2000, Nieuwe Opdrachtgevers started in Belgium, in 2002 the Nuovo Commitentes in Italy, in Spain and in Switzerland first projects started in 2012 and 2014. Thus, since then, around 500 citizen-commissioned projects have emerged across Europe. There have also been individual initiatives in Scandinavia, in Poland, in the USA and in South America. In Cameroon, a first pilot project began in 2014, with others to follow. Other countries and regions are currently setting up structures and launching pilot projects.
Methodologically, the New Patrons model has also evolved. Issues of urban planning or transformation in rural areas have been systematically addressed, as have topics that are repeatedly raised by citizens' groups and require special attention, such as dealing with death in community (cf. Les morts à l’oeuvre).
Since 2013, citizen-commissioned scientific research projects have also been emerging, producing remarkable results and adding a new dimension to the protocol. Specialized mediators and programs offer the opportunity for citizen commissions in individual disciplines such as theater, dance and performance, architecture or music.
In Berlin, the association Neue Auftraggeber e. V. was founded in 2007, following the French example. The first pioneering commissions showed that – and how – art commissioned by citizens can also take shape in Germany. The Federal Agency for Civic Education and the Körber Foundation were the first to support this advance.
A dozen initial and exemplary commissions emerged, most notably the New Patrons of Pritzwalk with the artist duo Clegg & Guttmann, whose lasting impact continues to this day. Another commission, Temple of Refuge, funded by the German Foreign Office, demonstrated how refugees (who are not formally citizens) also take responsibility as patrons for the community in which they choose to live.
From 2017 to 2022, the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation) funded a pilot phase, which made it possible for the first time in Germany to give art on behalf of citizens an appropriate format according to the protocol of the New Patrons and to show what happens when groups of citizens as well as artists are given the trust to implement their projects, accompanied by mediation. In this context, the Society of New Patrons was founded in 2017 as a non-profit gGmbH.
In 2022, the publication Neue Auftraggeber – Kunst im Bürgerauftrag recapitulated the events and results during this pilot phase, in which 17 projects were developed. Most of these projects continue to this day. They are described in detail on this website.
Since 2022, the network of New Patrons in Germany has expanded thanks to funding from the Federal Agency for Civic Education. Across Germany, new mediators are being trained and supported to become regionally active. New citizen-commissioned projects are emerging. The first municipalities have begun to implement the New Patrons protocol on their own or to promote local initiatives.
2022 saw the founding of the Gesellschaft für Kunst und Mediation im Bürgerauftrag e. V., which provides an umbrella for the growing number of mediators and represents their interests.
The non-profit organization certifies mediation according to the New Patrons protocol and offers internal exchange formats and training. It is a founding member of the international umbrella organization of the New Patrons, the Socité Internationale des Nouveaux Commanditaires, founded in 2023 and headquartered in Brussels, with Alexander Koch as founding chairman.
Beginning in the fall of 2023, the Kulturstiftung des Bundes (German Federal Cultural Foundation) is funding a new New Patrons program that allows citizen groups to express their interests by commissioning actors in the fields of dance and performance.
From the very beginning, and this too is already formulated in François Hers' protocol, the scientific reflection and embedding of art in the civic mission was an elementary component of the New Patrons model. For example, the French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour was closely associated with the French Nouveaux Commanditaires for many years and headed the corresponding commission at the Fondation de France from 2007 to 2013. Other researchers are also close to the model, such as the Belgian philosopher Vincianne Despret or the historian of science Isabelle Stengers.
As contributions to the international scholarly discourse, extensive anthologies of scholarly studies and essays have been produced (Faire art comme on fait société, 2013, and Reclaiming Art / Reshaping Democracy – The New Patrons & Participatory Art, 2017), alongside individual publications (e.g. Art Without Capitalism, 2013).
In 2021, the series Commissioned by – Art in Relation illuminated the specifics of citizen-commissioned art with monthly contributions, amongst others by Karin Harrasser, Silke Helfrich/Commons Institute, Shannon Jackson, Judith Laister, Bruno Latour and Joseph Leo Koerner, Jane Rendell for ARCH+, Isabelle Stengers, and Nora Sternfeld. Perspectives from art studies and mediation, sociology, anthropology, architecture and urban development, economics, and mediation are available online as an archive of a discursive and practical engagement with the New Patrons model.