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Let's see..the first thing that came to mind was Klimt. He made his initial
"big break" with a commission from the government, and just before the
murals were finished he walked out on the deal over creative (power &
censorship) differences, taking the art with him. He and his friends paid
back all the money he'd been given, but by then his reputation was made
anyway and he didn't need institutional commissions any more. So the artist
was "made" and the government got nothing. It's nice when the artist wins.
I feel that in this country the corporate world has been more significant
Re: commissioning significant (or just large) works than the NEA or any
other government body. The NEA just hasn't been around all that long, and
has never been adequately funded. Really very little of their resources have
gone to pre-fund the actual production of specific visual arts works, if
any. When direct artists awards are (were) given to artists based on a body
of work already produced, the NEA didn't end up "owning" work, as I
understand it, so it's not (to me) a commission.
I'd look more to the Ford Foundation and certainly the Guggenheim family and
the Rockefellers and other private foundations like Getty. (A curious,
current example is Target's funding of the restoration/scaffolding on the
Washington Monument, and they are tying that design commission to a line of
the architect's houseware designs available at Target stores, showing an
evening photo of the scaffolding in their mailer - the Washington Monument
used to sell designer egg timers...VERY strange.)
And Major airports have commissioned some significant large works (except
for that thing where an airline wanted to re-paint a Calder mobile in their
corporate colors - remember that fiasco?)
In the US it would be a big mistake to forget the importance of the WPA in
funding the production of art.