The Ins and Outs of Considering a Commission

The Ins and Outs of Considering a Commission
by Donald Clark

Courtesy of Handmade Business

What advice would you give an artist who has been offered the chance to do a very high-profile commission--one that would definitely raise his name recognition--but the subject matter is not at all to his liking? It's a commission that would be financially and publicity valuable. He knows it's a fantastic chance to have his work seen and known. The artist is a good friend of mine, and this is something he's wrestling with. How should he handle this opportunity? - Linda, via e-mail

What should be the proper policy for accepting and being paid for commissions? I recently got burned pretty bad. I did work for a friend of a friend of a friend. After the project was completed, I was not paid. The party said she changed her mind. Should a contract be signed? Should payments be made when the commission is accepted? While being worked on? And then completed? - Paul, via e-mail

It's interesting to contrast these two questions: one looking for help at the outset and another asking what to do when the project is already completed. I've rolled them together and given one answer that deals with both.

Commissions can be a challenge for the artist and the client. Two or maybe more people, who may not know one another well, enter into an arrangement designed to result in the production of some tangible thing. Certainly, this is a setup for all kinds of things to go wrong. So how to proceed? Let's realize that the parties involved need one another. One has something, and the other one wants it. On the playground, we just fought it out. This is way more complicated, but it is totally doable, and has been for centuries. Remember the Medici?

When handled correctly, a commission can be a rewarding, creative challenge for you. At the outset, you must be comfortable with the nature of what you're being asked to do and that you can complete the project in the time set forth. Is the client (an individual or group entity) asking for something outside your comfort zone, either aesthetically or technically? Is their completion date unrealistic in light of your other commitments? These are red-flag warnings that this isn't going to be a good fit for you or the client. It's best to walk away--even if you really need the money, or if this work could potentially make you rich and famous. If it goes badly, you won't be either, and you could find yourself in a legal hassle.

Regardless of what you make or the nature of the commission being considered, two strangers are entering into a professional relationship. As with any relationship, communication is essential. An ongoing dialogue between the parties is the only way to be sure the expectations of each will be honored. Typically, the prospective client has seen your work at a show with you in attendance, or in a gallery or shop or perhaps in a friend's home so they know what you have done. A commission can be as simple as making changes to what you already make: i.e., a shorter version of a necklace, a table a foot longer, a dinnerware set done in a different color. On the other hand, they may want you to create a totally new item for them.

The terms for any commission, regardless of how simple, must be negotiated and presented in the form of a contract signed by all parties involved. This is especially important with a commission for a totally new one-of-a-kind piece. This commission must be carefully negotiated and supported by a contract that assures the terms are understood and agreed upon. A contract that specifies what is expected and when--and spells out the recourse for each party--is very important. Without this, neither party has solid legal grounds, should the terms of the agreement not be met by either party.

Commissions may come your way from other sources. A commission could come through a gallery, where the client saw your work, and will be negotiated by the gallery. You certainly will be in on any creative decisions, but the gallery will handle all the legal stuff and write the contract. The charge for this would be based on the complexity of the negotiations and would be a percentage of the sale price. A commission may come from a decorator or art consultant; these commissions are often for public spaces and may require the creation of numerous items. We once worked with a firm sourcing art for cruise ships--that was fun!

Whatever the source of the contract, it basically says that you, the artist, promise to complete the project and the client promises to pay you, but there's more. Let's take a look at some points that need to be covered. Obviously, the names and contact information of all involved parties will be up front. There also needs to be a statement that describes the project in clear and concise terms. This information will come from the conversations with the client and perhaps a visit to your studio and to the final site for the work. The work schedule also needs to be agreed upon and spelled out, including the completion date.

It's your job to come up with the price. This would include the cost of materials, your time, the time of others involved at your end, travel, and installation if necessary. Adding 10% to cover the unexpected things that come up along the way is a good idea. Financial arrangements need to be spelled out. Payment terms will be part of the negotiations. You will want some money up front, in the form of a nonrefundable payment. This is quite standard. This amount will be determined by the complexity of the project. If it's simple and short term, you might want 50% when the contract is signed and 50% when the work is delivered. More complicated projects that involve multiple drawings and presentations might provide a third when the contract is signed, a third when the client signs off on the drawings, and a third at delivery. The nonrefundable deposit protects you a bit if the client backs out along the way. You may also want to be clear that the client owns the object, but that you retain the right to reproduce it--something that they may not do, in any way.

A commission is essentially a collaboration between an artist and a client. Whether it's for a public building or for a private residence, if well done, it can reward the artist with fame, as well as money.