Structuring Basic Commissions, Small and Large


Sculpture by Matt Kirby: “Pierced Sky,” Cast Glass, Stainless Steel, Mild Steel. City of Overland Park.

The simplest sort of commission occurs when a client falls in love with one of your works, but it’s already sold. Do you let them go away disappointed? We don’t. Instead, we offer to have the artist execute the same piece in a different size, be it painting or sculpture. This practice dates back to the time of Rembrandt, whose better-known paintings were often executed in three different sizes: study, enlargement, and monumental scale. The pieces are never exactly alike anyway. While they might capture the same mood or scene, there are always slight differences.
Most of our artists love this practice, but a few don’t care for it, since the idea of doing the same piece twice bores them, even if in different sizes. But for those who practice it, they always strive to make the second piece as impassioned as the first, so that it radiates its own particular fire.
If this approach leads to your first commission, make sure the details are spelled out in a letter of agreement. This should discuss size, price, date of completion, and the fact that you guarantee the client’s satisfaction. I mean you already know you’re going to do good work; the guarantee just clarifies this while winning the client’s confidence.

Let’s assume you meet an executive, restaurateur, or politician who wants to commission a large work. If it’s your first commission, please pay attention to what I’m about to cover. It details a set of circumstances that are far more common than not.
In the beginning with commissions, most emerging artists virtually have to give away their work in order to place it, since until you’re established, it’s hard to get the price you’re worth. I’m not saying you should give it away, only that you’ll face some challenges in this respect until your reputation is established. It’s no different for emerging musicians, like the Rolling Stones when they started out, initially performing for almost nothing just to get a gig.
Example: Arlie Regier’s first large commission, prior to joining my gallery, involved a huge work in stainless steel for a city park. He was approached by a local politician about it, and was so thrilled to be placing a substantial piece, that he set the price rather low. This often happens when emerging artists don’t have professional representation, since they tend to underestimate the totality of their expenses, while also hoping the exposure will offset the low price and change their fortunes, not realizing it rarely does. By the time Arlie finished with the hundreds of hours of cutting, welding, grinding and polishing, he regretted giving the city such an insane deal. Worse, no sales resulted after the big dedication. Why? Nothing was promoted.
If the installation isn’t promoted—which requires real forethought and effort—it will have little impact on your career. I’d love to tell you that the crowd who shows up on dedication day will automatically start buying your work the day after, but that’s rarely the case. This is why you must have a thorough understanding of what your real costs will be, why you must get the highest price you can, and why someone needs to promote the fact of the commission both while it is taking place and after it has been completed.
How do you promote a commission? By posting it on your website, notifying friends and clients in an email blast, posting it on your social network site, adding another line to your resume, and getting the press to cover. When the piece is finished, you’ll also want to create a postcard or photographic one-sheet that shows finished work. You can use this to hand out to prospects, while also converting it to a PDF for emailing purposes. And so forth…
Just use your creative sense about how you can announce the significance of this achievement without overdoing it. The possibilities are many. If you’re not sure of what steps to take, sit down with some promotion-savvy friends and brainstorm. Taking those steps will help you land future commissions, with you gradually increasing the price as time goes by.
Arlie? Because he made the sacrifices involved in finishing that first commission, it gave me an installation to promote him with once he joined us. Building from that, I was able to place his smaller works with more clients, win him larger commissions, and convince galleries around the country to carry his work. This lead to many breaks, including a piece in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Hence that first, underpriced commission wasn’t a wasted effort—but it might have been had we not promoted it.
What happens if, say, a restaurateur approaches you about doing a series of paintings for his restaurant but he can’t pay full price? Have him pay as much as he can, then barter for the balance. You can also do this with car dealers, dentists, accountants, contractors, and just about any trade you can imagine. How would I know? Because we’ve done it all.
Of course what you really want is to be well -paid for your commissions—with money, not meals. Sure you want this. Everybody wants this. But it takes time to achieve. So if an opportunity for bartering arises, you might consider it. As long as you strike a good deal, it’s fine. In fact you may want to make a list of people you know who like your work, yet never felt able to buy it. If they provide a service you value, and that you have to pay for anyway, this could be a simple way to start placing works and expanding your client list. Our dentist’s rather large collection reflects how well this has worked for us—and my family has had some damned expensive dental issues. Now if I just could have found a way to do this with the universities.

When you secure a commission, you should draw up a letter of agreement before you proceed with any work and before any money changes hands. This is essential, as it spells out the terms for everyone involved, and normally prevents misunderstandings from occurring later. I’ve provided a sample letter below, based on one we recently used with a patron who was sponsoring a sculpture for a major city.

Gloria Swanson Date
461 Ocean Boulevard
City of the Angels, CA 90210

Dear Gloria:

This is to establish terms between Matt Kirby, Artist, Gloria Swanson, Client, and Leopold Gallery, Art Advisor, in the creation of a monumental sculpture for City of the Angels.

—Title: Pierced Sky

—Design: A sculpture in stainless steel, mild steel, and cast glass, created to conform to the original design, as submitted by Artist and approved by Client.

—Dimensions: 16’ high, 5’ wide, 14’ deep.

—Gross Weight: Approximately 3000 lbs.

—Finish: The mild steel aspects will be powder-coated in a black, mat finish. The stainless steel and cast glass require no special finish.

—Commission Amount: $95,000, which includes delivery and installation.

—Mounting Method: The method of mounting will be approved by a certified structural engineer, as will the stability of the sculpture, which will be fabricated in such a way as to warrant that the steel will not develop metal fatigue from wind, gravity, or natural lateral forces for the duration of its placement. Exceptions will be made in the events of vandalism, accidental damage, extreme weather, or Acts of God. All aspects of fabrication and installation will be approved by Art Advisor and Client.

—Installation: Artist will supervise installation, in concert with Art Advisor.

—Client Approval: Artist warrants that overall design, installation method, and metal quality are subject to approval by Client and Art Advisor.

—Client Monitoring: Client will be kept informed of progress via digital photography, periodically submitted by Art Advisor, as well as by studio visits.

¬—Deadline: Work will be completed and installed by November 3, 2010.

—Copyright: Artist retains copyright, but will grant Client usage in non-salable printed materials and internet promotions, as long as Artist is given credit in each instance.

—Terms: $47,500 downpayment; $23,750 when work is halfway completed; balance upon installation and satisfaction of client.

With sufficiency acknowledged, I sign my name to the above.


Paul Dorrell Gloria Swanson
Director Client

A lawyer didn’t draw this up, I did, although I advised my client to have her lawyer approve it. As for my part, I trust my business sense in landing commissions, negotiating them, and working out the details. Hence I rarely involve lawyers in formalizing agreements, since that tends to delay matters, drives up costs, and can inspire mistrust. But when I do need a lawyer for complex contracts, I hire one who operates on the same basis of mutual fairness that I do. It’s up to you whether you choose to involve an attorney. If you don’t, just make sure that someone with a keen business mind proofs the agreement, looking for weaknesses or missing details.
Regarding the commission for the sculpture described above, we didn’t get the first price we presented, so I had to negotiate to a slightly lower price—which I’d anticipated, so started with a higher price than I thought we would get anyway. The price we did get in the end was satisfactory. By the time the installation was complete, the client was ecstatic, the press coverage good, and the success of that work led to other commissions—but again, only because we promoted the sculptor, good old Matt Kirby.

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