Contracting Creativity


Ennio E. Piano (Middle Tennessee State University) and Clara E. Piano (Austin Peay State University)

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The Demand and Supply of Creative Freedom

What determines the creative freedom available to an artist? In a recent publication, authors Ennio E. Piano and Clara E. Piano contribute to the ongoing effort to understand art markets. Renaissance Italy provides a perfect testing ground for their analysis since art was primarily exchange via a commission system and documented in commission contracts in this market. Using a unique data set containing ninety original commission documents, the authors test several hypotheses: 1) an artist with a good reputation will enjoy great creative freedom, 2) the more valuable a commission is, the less likely the patron is to give up creative control and the more willing an artist is to sacrifice creative freedom, and 3) creative freedom will vary depending on whether the patron is corporate or individual. They find substantial evidence in favor of the last two hypotheses, and weak evidence that artist reputation served as a substitute for creative control.

Background and Methods

“And the said Piero has promised to make, paint, embellish and erect the said picture according to the size and type of the painting on wood which is there at present; and to deliver it completed and placed in position within the next three years, according to the above conditions and qualities of the colours and fine gold; and that no other painter can put his hand to the brush except the said painter himself” (Chambers 1970)

The market for art in Renaissance Italy functioned using a commission system in which the patron, usually a corporate body such as a religious order, would contract with the painter for the completion of a specific artwork, usually an altarpiece or fresco. The excerpt above is from a commission contract for an altarpiece between painter Piero della Francesca and patron, the Confraternita della Misericordia (a lay religious organization). Prior to this section, the document mentioned the use of ultramarine blue, gilding, and even specified how repairs over the next ten years were to be done. All of these things affected the creative freedom of the painter.

To understand the determinants of control over creativity in art markets, we employ a basic model of supply and demand. We assume that painters derive utility from their creative freedom, both directly and because their artworks determined the value of their reputation. However, patrons derive utility from the inverse, since they understood how the artwork would be displayed and wanted to signal magnificence. This tension generates several predictions:

  1. Commission price and creative freedom will be inversely related.
  2. Creative freedom will vary systematically by patron type.
  3. Painter reputation and creative freedom will be inversely related.

To test these hypotheses, we generated a unique dataset of ninety commission documents linked with certain painter- and patron-specific variables.

Results and Conclusion

Our main measure of creative freedom is the length of description of the final painting in the commission document. We used indicators for the type of patron (individual, lay, public, or religious) and two interrelated measures of an artist’s reputation, his age and the number of words Vasari had written about him. We controlled for painting type and half-century time fixed effects.

We find that commission price is positively and significantly associated with description length. This confirms our first hypothesis that painters are more willing to give up creative freedom (and patrons more likely to impose control) when a larger monetary value is at stake. We also find evidence that patron type matters for description length, specifically that individual patrons required more creative control. Since corporate patrons were more likely to request familiar religious subjects (e.g., Madonna and Child), we suspect that this reflects the novelty of the painting subject. Finally, we find mixed evidence for the effects of reputation on description length. To validate these findings we also include three robustness checks.

In conclusion, some of the most well-known artworks were created under the commission system of Renaissance Italy. We investigate the determinants of creative control in this market, employing a supply and demand model to predict when painters would have been willing to give up their creative freedom. Testing our predictions using a dataset of original commission documents, we find evidence that commission value and patron type matters for control. Although direct commissions are no longer the norm for new works of art, our analysis highlights the conditions which affect any artist’s creative freedom and sheds light on how specific institutions can consequentially shape art markets.