Chapter 9 - Commissioning a Work of Art
To commission a work of art means to contract an artist to create something unique just for you. Perhaps you've fallen in love with an artist's style but none of the available pieces are the right size. Maybe you want a specific subject depicted or have particular colors in mind. It could be that you envision a mural on a wall of your new home. By commissioning a work of art, you get, or should get, exactly what you want, right? Yes, but within reason. Remember, you are not the artist.
The Collector's Role - Communicating Your Vision
To begin, let's assume you've found the artist whose style resonates with you and the artist's work is within your budget. The first and most important thing you can do is to determine if the artist is truly comfortable working on commission. There are certainly many advantages to the artist, the most obvious being that the work is pre-sold. The reality is not all artists are equally amenable to working with specific criteria or requirements when it comes to subject, composition, or palette. A good idea is to ascertain if the artist has done work on commission before and is open to (some) direction.
The key to a successful collaboration is communication with the artist or artist representative. As the collector, it is important that you and the artist reach a clear understanding of what you want. Are you able to communicate your vision clearly? How much input is the artist willing to accept?
Commissioning a work of art does not entitle you to "micro-manage" the creation of the piece. If you are clear about the subject matter you would like depicted, can convey what you like about the artist's style and what palette you were attracted to in the artist's other works, you've done your job. At some point you have to let go and let the artist's vision take over. Becoming too involved in the process will hamstring the artist's creativity and yield disappointing results. If you are the "controlling" type, commissioning a work of art may not be for you.
I know of one artist who will do commissions only on the condition that the client is not obligated to take the piece. The artist feels this allows him the freedom to interpret the client's vision in his style and as suits his aesthetic, which the artist refuses to compromise. He finds the pressure of working on commission too great if he is subject to reworking the piece endlessly to meet the client's specifications. If the client chooses not to buy, the artist figures he'll sell the piece to someone else. Interestingly, I don't think the artist has ever had a client refuse a painting.
Stages of the Process and Structuring Payment
Like any other custom work, if you commission a piece of art you can expect to pay more, usually 20% above the price of an existing piece of comparable size and quality by the artist.
Be prepared to pay one-third to one-half of the total fee as a deposit. This lets the artist know you are serious and also helps with start-up expenses. In the case of the painter that means canvas, paints, brushes and stretcher bars. For the sculptor, costs for materials are even greater, i.e., stone, wax, clay, mold-making and foundry costs.
To avoid risks and misunderstanding on both sides, the terms of your agreement should be put in writing. This does not have to be a formal document, but should specify payment structure and the approximate time frame for completion of the work (though quality is more important than a deadline), as well as specifics about medium and size.
When arranging a commission piece between an artist and collector, I have found structuring the transaction as follows works well:
1. Ideas are exchanged between the artist or artist representative and collector. The scope of the assignment is agreed upon verbally and then put into writing;
2. A minimum deposit of one-third of the total fee is paid to the artist. The artist submits a loose sketch of his or her idea for the piece to the client for approval. Upon acceptance of the composition, the client pays the second third. An alternative preferred by most artists and collectors is to have trust in each other and structure a less complicated half down, half upon completion/acceptance type arrangement;
3. If you live in close proximity to the artist and can pick up the piece in person, the balance due should be paid when you take possession. If the art is to be sent to you, the artist should send or email you a photo of the completed work. If you approve, then you should send a check for the balance due the artist plus shipping costs at that time. (Sadly, many artists have been "burned" by sending the art before receiving final payment.) An alternative is for the artist to send the work C.O.D.
Commissioning a work of art can be an exciting and rewarding experience. I've found that most people who have done so are glad they did. If you are attracted to an artist's work, chances are you will be on the same wavelength—the artist will understand your wishes and you will trust the artist to interpret them. Everybody wins.