Commission Commitment

When collectors ask artists, "Do you accept commissions?" the answer is usually, "Yes." However, a better answer is, "In theory. Let's take 5 minutes to find out if we are a good match."

Committing to a commission, as an artist and as a collector, is a lot like dating. So, before you enter into an artistic romance, here are a few tips for both the artist and the collector in order to ensure a fruitful commission.

What attracted you to me? Knowing what you like about the artist's work — medium, subject matter, style, collectibility — is the base of any good commission. Talk with each other about which areas are open to interpretation and what, if anything, you want specifically within the artwork — color, subject matter, size. 

Let's take this to the next level Once you have established that there is some chemistry, talk business. Some artists out there just fainted, but don't worry. Review past artwork sales relative to the planned artwork's physical size, scope, materials, and date of completion and you have your starting point for pricing and duration.  

How do you feel about a pre-nup? Have a contract as it protects both sides. It also makes for a great project outline. Contracts can be simple — art description, price, size — and should have language about target dates with coordinating payments. At minimum there should be a deposit for materials, but one-third or one-half upfront is fairly normal. As a collector, ask for photos as the artwork is being developed. It is wise to include language that protects the collector or artist should the other party change his or her mind about the piece altogether. Some artists will take ownership of an unclaimed piece and keep the deposit, but that will depend upon your contract.

I just need some space  Do not over-direct the artist's work. Yes, it's your commission and your money that is paying for it, but the artist is the one who is creating the piece, you like his or her other work, so why curtail that creativity? An American sculptor, who asked not to be named, was commissioned by a collector who already owned several of her pieces and he loved her style and media choices. He explained what he wanted, she sketched up some ideas, presented them, and he said they looked good. The sculpture should have been done in a month's time, but three months later she was still working on the piece because he'd been sending weekly emails with detailed changes. She finally just followed them blindly.

"I didn't think the piece would ever be finished because he kept tweaking it. Other than the media, you'd never know it was one of my pieces. I don't even put it in my portfolio."

The collector has since bought more of her work, but the artist said that she wouldn't do a commission with him again unless she was given total freedom. You want the artwork to be representative of the artist's hands, so don't tie them behind his or her back.

I'm not that kind of girl  A client asked me to photograph him and his fiancée underwater, Holiday Card Style, and I explained that wasn't the sort of work that I do. He insisted and I acquiesced, but there was a huge problem: I did not like the result at all. We only had 30 minutes to take the photo, the weather wasn't cooperating, and underwater strobes have distance limitations, not to mention the issue of backscatter. I could have certainly had a crew of two with me to distance place the lighting, but I don't work that way because it changes the look of the finished product. Ultimately, I gave them the photos, no charge, but I was embarrassed to have my name attached to the photos. I should have just stood my ground and turned him down. 

Communication is key to a long-lasting relationship. If the piece is progressing, but either one of you doesn't like it, tell the other. Regroup in order to figure out what's not working because it could be something simple.

It's not you, it's me.  If it's still not working, don't force it. It's best if both parties agree, like dating, but if not, be honest about it and end the commission with dignity. If you have that contract, it will be much easier, legal, and without too many tears.