Art students find that corporate commissions and sponsorship give them much-needed exposure, income and business skills. Susan Elkin surveys the scene
Few people have been in the shadowy depths of an empty London Underground station at 2am when the power is switched off and the platforms are eerily quiet. Sylvie Vandenhoucke has - in the interests of corporate-sponsored art. Taking her work underground has been an enlightening experience for the Royal College of Art student. It is a far cry from the garret studios and aristocratic patrons of the past as Britain-at-work becomes ever more involved in the sponsorship of young artists.
Vandenhoucke was part of an eight-person research project commissioned to provide artwork for London Underground's Gloucester Road station as part of her MA. "It was a welcome opportunity to work in a public space," says Vandenhoucke, whose medium is fragile glass and fibreglass. "But it was also a challenge because everything had to be scaled up."
She normally works on pieces that are less than a metre long because "there isn't much room in college". At Gloucester Road, the sculpture - designed to connote the wind movement caused by the rush and suck of trains speeding in and out of tunnels - had to be 2m by 3.5m to fill a whole arch on Platform 1 on the District Line.
The only other artistic issue to arise was for health and safety reasons.
London Underground bans some materials from use below ground, so artists may have to compromise if what they normally work in is flammable. "It was also a bit odd not being able to erect it myself," Vandenhoucke says. "Only insured London Underground staff may go up ladders, so the eight of us had to direct the two technicians. We had just two nights to get it done."
Does Vandenhoucke feel her artistic integrity was compromised because a corporate body such as London Underground was picking up the tab? "No, because it was all set up by the college, and they know what they're doing," she says. "We were pretty free to do what we wanted artistically, and London Underground gave us each a quite generous materials budget that felt quite liberating as few students can afford to buy the material they would like to work in."
Vandehoucke's experience illustrates how big business is buying, facilitating and promoting art from promising young artists. Such deals and partnerships have mushroomed in fine arts higher education in the past three or four years.
Other RCA students are busy at Canary Wharf's towering 1 Canada Square, where their work is to be exhibited from next month. The glassy, cathedral-like foyer is impressive but has a harsh feel. Art helps to fill and soften the space. Felicity Aylieff, senior tutor for ceramics and glass at the RCA, has exhibited her own work at Canary Wharf for some years. She now manages to get about 20 of her postgraduate students involved each year. "Naturally, students have to be aware of cultural sensibilities and the limitations of taste," she says. "There can be no overt nudity, for example."
She points out that the "customer" can make stipulations and that the "supplier" can accept them or walk away. The Canary Wharf deal is good for the students. Their work is exhibited for three months at the end of the academic year and through the summer. If a sale is made, the student must pay a commission to Canary Wharf and the college, but it is much lower than the 50 per cent usually required by galleries.
Artists have always depended on pleasing their paymasters and patrons - otherwise they do not eat. And, to an extent, that must mean giving the man, woman or organisation with the money what they want - even though it may not be quite what the artist would do given a free hand. The principle is as old as money and as old as art. Does that mean that rather than agonising over whether Brit Art is now being swallowed wholesale by UK plc, we should welcome the 21st-century take on "artistic patronage"?
Niki Bywater of the London Institute says: "People get very anxious about Mammon, but it isn't necessarily a bad thing. What is wrong with commerciality if it gets more opportunity for more artists?" She says that there is now a blurring of the boundaries between art and commerce, but she argues that this is a healthy development as long as artists' "intellectual property" is protected so no one is unwittingly "bought" entirely.
And the spin-offs cannot be overlooked. Students at Camberwell College of Art are working with outside organisations and companies such as the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and Sony's PlayStation 2 brand, partly because they need to be equipped with what Sian Sterling of the London Institute calls "essential skills for freelancing".
Some students have found that a bit of experience of working in commerce helps to focus minds on many aspects of business that they will have to deal with once they leave their cosy college. Camberwell-trained ceramicist Louise Knight says she got virtually no practical advice on business management during her course. And Angela Jarman, a glass specialist who took her degree at the Surrey Institute, complains: "There was nothing about business basics in it - we were too spoon-fed." This is a dimension that more art colleges might seek in their business links.
Rob Leighton, head of art at Benenden School in Kent, which sends students to art colleges each year, says he is delighted when corporations buy, or otherwise pay for, a piece of his artwork. But he has two reservations. "If a corporation or well-placed individual 'buys' a student - as Charles Saatchi virtually did with the now very successful Jenny Saville (a Glasgow-trained, acclaimed figurative painter) - it puts the artist in a very vulnerable position. What happens if the sponsor later has a change of heart and 'drops' the artist? That's a ruined career."
Leighton's other worry is that if art colleges get too close to their corporate partners, there could be a danger of distinctive "house styles" developing in the various colleges in order to meet the specific requirements of the students' potential paymasters. "I would hate to see art colleges teaching to any kind of corporate brief - however subtly applied," he said.
Nevertheless, the rewards can be great. Take painter Christian Ward, some of whose work has been bought by Charles Saatchi. He won the first Royal Academy Schools' St James Fellowship of the Arts - a £10,000 bursary funded by property developer St James Homes. The fellowship also provides him with a studio for a year, which he has been using since completing his MA at the RCA last summer. For his recent show at NW Projects in London, all the paintings he exhibited were sold in advance. He now has a waiting list of people who want to buy his works.
Part of the deal with St James is that the company must provide the award's recipient with exhibition space in the lobbies of its developments and in open space for sculptures without putting any restrictions on the nature of the work.
"We set this up with the RCA," says Mark Davy, spokesman for St James, "and it's not corporate art as such. We give a brief on the type of development and the space available and point out a few essentials about the area and its residents. Otherwise, we don't attempt to influence the nature of the art." He adds that Ward's piece - now in a converted Victorian pumping station integrated within a London residential development - is "entirely appropriate".
"Ten to One", works by RCA ceramics and glass MA students, will be exhibited at 1 Canada Square from June 16.