This past fall a client said she won a BIG commission. Bigger in value than what many artists make in a year. She had done a smaller commission of similar work with that same client and it went so well that she was given the chance to do an even bigger project.
The one thing that left her feeling a little nervous was that she didn’t have a contract in place. Everything was based on a verbal conversation. And, the cost of materials alone made it a huge outlay of her money, up front so it hit her…
“I need an agreement of some kind but where do I find a good one?”
The first thing I recommended was that she schedule a meeting with her customer to review and discuss a formal agreement of the commission. That way both of them would be on the same page regarding what they expected from each other. This includes due dates for approvals, designs, samples and the payment schedule.
It makes talking about money a whole lot easier for artists when it’s just one item on a long checklist to be approved. In a situation like this, getting 50% up front to help cover the outlay of her time, design and materials makes a huge difference. It also fully commits the customer and better engages them in the process.
And, since I’m not a lawyer, I suggested that she look at the sample contracts in the book ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (and do) As You Pursue Your Art Career by Heather Darcy Bhandari AND Jonathan Melber first. Jonathan Melber is an arts lawyer by trade so the contracts in the book are a great place to start.
Google is super for finding examples, too but that can easily send you down a rabbit hole of searches. Of course you may want to add or edit items to any sample contract so it’s a fit for you, your customer and your specific project.
ART/WORK is a great place to find a starter contract, and if you’re doing work on commission, you really need an agreement in place to protect you and to protect your client.
Sometimes things can go sideways but having an agreement in place is a step in the right direction to having a happy client and feeling good about the work -verses creating a mess of headaches. Your client will know they’re dealing with a pro when you bring them a contract to discuss and sign.
In my client’s case, neither she nor her customer had a lot of experience in doing this kind of custom work so having an official agreement in place made the deliverables and expectations crystal clear and cut down on confusion big time.
Beyond getting contracts in place and negotiating terms of an agreement, I’m sharing this book because it’s an indispensible resource for you to have at-the-ready when questions come up.
Here's why I like this book for more than the contract examples…
It’s a Non-Ugly Book.
Yes, orange—the book cover color—is one of my favorite colors so I may be biased, but the whole book is designed to look nice. In this case, that also translates into being really easy to find information in a way that’s never overwhelming. The concise, clearly written chunks of information make reading it a breeze instead of a chore. The illustrations are humorous and helpful.
The Quotes from Art World Pros.
This book is laced with tons of quotes from gallerists, museum professionals, residency directors, critics, curators and artists from all over the country who offer more than just quips. Real information is in there about the way that people think, act and perceive your work in the art world.
Hardcore Business Advice.
ART/WORK gives solid “how to have an art career” information here that’s current and relevant. They cover the big picture stuff but also the details.
Things that are easy to forget if you haven’t done it in a while, like how to frame your work properly, what to include in a cover letter or how to package your work for safe shipping are all welcome information to center yourself when you’ve got bigger fish to fry, like “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to curate, frame and hang my full show in two weeks!”.
If you want to get your questions answered quickly, ART/Work is a great reference book to have on your shelf.
Action Idea – Are you offering commissions? If not, but you’re open to trying it, what custom offering can you add to your website?
Have you ever had a commission go south? If yes, leave it in the comments so we can all learn about the pros and cons of doing this kind of work.
Here's to many commissions in your future!