Art Commissions can be a delicate balancing act of negotiation between the artist and the client or patron. Working on commission, as opposed to making art for yourself, requires flexibility and communication from all parties involved. The easiest way to approach such a relationship is to think of commissioned work as a collaboration, not a service.
Traditionally, it’s been most common for those in positions of power (like rulers and government officials) to commission artwork. Throughout history, commissions have not only been used as art, but also as propaganda. The Roman Coliseum, for example, was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian as a symbol of imperial glory in addition to its entertainment purposes. During the Middle Ages and throughout much of the Renaissance, artists were commissioned to create works that exhibited religious devotion.
Nowadays, the negotiation between artists and clients reflects the contemporary notion that art should not be about wealth and power, but ideas. Commissions are requested for private use or donated for public display. They are also an effort to make art more widely accessible. With that said, let’s discuss how you can navigate art commissions to your advantage and some other important things to consider.
Finding Art Commissions
Usually, artists receive requests for art commissions from their existing customers, those who know their art style and already own a few works, or from people they come across in the course of their career that may not be art collectors per say but might be looking to get a specific project completed. However, there are some things that you can do to fast track the whole process.
Let People Know
The first and foremost thing to do is to let people know that you are open to art commissions. Put this information on your website and on your social media pages. If you send out a newsletter, make sure to mention it on their every now and then. You should also inform your agent or the gallery you are affiliated with.
In this age of technology, finding rewarding opportunities online is quite common. Keeping a lookout for requests and even advertisements is always a good idea.
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Don’t Hesitate To Reach Out To People
If you know of a new project coming up or an institution like a community center in your local area, approach them with your ideas! You don’t necessarily have to find the art commission, you can always create one for yourself.
According to David Stanley Hewett, an artist based out of Japan who has done commission works for big names like The Imperial Hotel, The Okura Hotel and Oakwood Premier, “The days of ‘being discovered’ and then having a gallery manage everything for the artist are mostly gone. I have learned over the past 30 years that the key to being considered for large projects is to make sure you are constantly in front of the decision makers.”
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Communication Is The Key
The most important part of taking on commission work is to be upfront about the needs of your client from the start. A great way to approach this subject is to formally meet with your client as soon as possible. Some artists suggest taking a client into your studio and asking them to select work that seems most like what they have in mind, since it can be difficult to verbalize specifics. In some cases, clients may choose work that’s already been made. During the studio visit, ask the client what they do and don’t like about your work, and request that they ask questions in return. It can also be helpful to describe the stages by which you work in order for the client to understand both sides of the process.
If you are unable to bring your client into your studio for some reason, we suggest asking and prompting as many questions between all parties as possible. Some questions to consider include “Have you commissioned art before?” “What role do you foresee yourself playing in the process?” and “What do you want the finished piece to evoke?” Don’t forget to invite them to ask questions as well. The more transparency between you and your client, the more smoothly the commission process will proceed, regardless of the project size or requirements.
The next step is to formalize a contract that lists out all the requirements of the project and other important information. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should include major components like the appearance (size and medium) of the project, payment schedule and amount, late payment fees, completion time, and any other details. It is also advised to consult an attorney before writing or signing the contract. At the time of the contract signing, many artists find it helpful to request a portion of the payment. This provides further security of commitment and a base to purchase supplies instead of buying them on credit. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind when writing a contract is to include the following items:
Price: Make the price clear based on size or style. Includes taxes and shipping if they are not already a part of the price. It might also be a good idea to keep a Master List of prices for your works. This can help a client gauge how much their commission might cost. You may also want to consider whether you’ll charge for the piece itself or by the hour that you work. There may be more time put into the piece than you initially anticipated. This, of course, can be a stipulation written into the contract.
Timeline: Include the length of the project, writing up the contract, the payment schedule, deadlines for material from the client if applicable, a defined approval process, and developed shipping times.
Traditional contracts include at least five items: an introduction, payment terms, visual references, retain rights, and signatures. The introduction should define all parties, and the retaining rights should include considerations such as reproduction rights.
Negotiating The Price For Art Commissions
Negotiating a price can be uncomfortable work. But an artist has a right to be paid what they deserve. Many artists recommend approaching this topic using the “anchoring effect.” This tactic is performed when someone offers a price, or “sets the anchor.” This psychological rule follows that most people don’t like straying too far from the anchor, and that the person who sets the anchor controls the negotiation.
If a client is difficult to influence, try explaining the justification behind your pricing. You might also suggest that the client offers reasons why they feel a certain price is inaccurate. This can smooth out any uneasiness during the transaction and allow both parties to settle on something fair. Remember that if a client (especially a private individual) can afford to commission work, they’re probably not strapped for money.
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One last bit of advice: never negotiate in front of other people. This can help avoid embarrassing the client, yourself, and other observers.
Finishing up a commissioned piece can be extremely rewarding and is often a complimentary experience. Someone wants to pay you for art after all – hoorah! Ultimately, it’s your decision whether or not to accept a commission and at what point you’re willing to make concessions in terms of artistic integrity, price, and time. Don’t forget that art commissions are a partnership between artist and client, not a service for one from the other.
This post is also available in: Spanish