Successful commissions come from communicating directly with the client before, during, and sometimes after the process of creating artworks. Setting up a clear relationship with the client enables you, the artist, to respond effectively to the client’s concerns, requests and needs. When taking on a commission, it is crucial that you are flexible and work well with people. If you are not someone that is capable of this communication, reconsider taking on commissions or hire someone to be the liaison for you during the process.
If you take on a commission from a client you do not know, be warned about a few pitfalls. No matter how badly you need the money, never sell your work or your services for less than they are worth. It may come back to haunt you later on in your career. Always meet face-to-face with the potential client to discuss the details of the commission, preferably at your studio. This way the client has an opportunity to see a variety of pieces. Otherwise, you will feel constrained to produce a specific composition or style.
For a commission to function successfully, both the client and you have to imagine the creation of the artwork in pretty much the same way. Upfront, clear, and frequent communication along with written documentation/agreements will ensure a smooth commission. Differences in initial perception can lead to problems later in the process, when it is often too late to make changes without incurring additional expenses or straining working relationships.
Before taking on a commission
Find out how many works the potential client has commissioned in the past and his or her prior experience/track-record. The larger the number of commissions, the less likely you are to encounter problems.
Contact the artists the client has commissioned before and ask about their experience with the potential client.
If the client has never commissioned an artwork before, make sure you can give him or her what she/he wants. If the client has unrealistic expectations that you cannot fulfill, turn down the job. You will often need to educate first-time clients about the commissioning process in terms of contractual obligations, project timeline, and costs.
Ask the client what she/he wants to see in the final project in terms of the feelings your artwork can elicit, and particular concepts, meanings, or points-of-view. Very detailed or specific answers may mean that the client will try to micro-manage the project. Arrive at a clear understanding of the client’s desires and vision, and your ability to create within those parameters.
To avoid potential pitfalls, find out what elements the client does NOT like. If his or her dislikes are not aligned with your art-making process or product, turn down the commission.
Find out if the client will be the only one approving the artwork. You want a “yes” answer here. The more people you have to please, the less likely you are to succeed. If someone else is going to approve the work you may need to meet with him or her as well. Assigning a project liaison that represents a group may prevent confusion and conflicting desires/requirements. This liaison should be selected and included in your commission agreement. In addition, make sure that you go over a timeline for approval of the drawings or mock up, and an estimate for the project. Be sure to include any provisions for changes or additions to the proposal.
Be sure to ask the client if there are other questions or requests not addressed in your agreement. An answer like “not really” is always good. A long involved answer is a warning sign that the two of you are not on the same page.
Make sure the client understands about maintenance agreements and longevity of the piece commissioned and who is responsible for upkeep.
Never begin a commission until you have clarified all practical and procedural details, and have signed a contract. (See Contracts & Agreements chapter for sample Commission Contract.)
To prevent miscommunications about the final piece and avoid a client backing out of a commission, allow the client to periodically view and approve the progress of the artwork. Another way to avoid conflict is to encourage dialogue while under contract, and never change the aesthetics of the artwork once it is underway. The more homework you do prior to accepting the commission, the more likely you will know how to conduct yourself while creating the work. You might want to submit ongoing reports as to the activity completed.
Verbal agreements are poor business practice, and can result in disputes down the road. Always require a scheduled payment plan for all commissioned work, typically a one-third advance of the total cost of the commission. This plan will take pressure off of your production schedule and the client’s financial expectations/concerns. Most commissions begin with a non-refundable advance which commits the client to buying into a successful outcome. The final commissioned work and subsequent final payment ensures that the client is getting what she/he has paid for. The payments in between serve as progress reports, received as the commission moves forward and on schedule.
The commission contract should include the following information:
Basic characteristics and description of the artwork
Late payment fees
Penalties or contingency plans in case of emergency or incomplete work.
Timeline for completion
Final delivery date
Refusing a Commission
Once you accept a commission, get to work immediately. It will hurt your career to be tardy with a pre-approved schedule and/or delivery of your work. Few clients are interested in working with artists who do not take themselves seriously enough to deliver on time.
Never accept a commission that you are unable to competently execute because the client might not be satisfied with the final piece. Also, never let the client have too much control over the final appearance of the artwork, lest it feel like she/he is breathing down your neck, which is not fun. Although it is imperative to make your client happy, make sure that you are completely satisfied with the final piece as well.
Lack of effort or skill may backfire later in your career. Be cautious when considering making work outside of your skill level or medium just for the money.
Should any problems arise that you and the client cannot resolve, you may need to contact an arts lawyer. Remember that Lawyers for the Arts may offer a discounted rate on legal advice.
Contingency plans for incomplete work or unfulfilled payments along with protocols in case of emergencies ensure that both the client and the artist are protected. These plans should be negotiated when drafting any commission contract. Illness, injury, fire, “acts of God,” negligence, fraud, and other unexpected concerns can and do happen during commissions. Always be prepared to negotiate a clearly stated and fair contract before starting any work for a client.
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