How to Commission Contemporary Art
Buying art, or commissioning a unique artwork, can be enthralling, daunting, confusing. Should you trust your instincts, or seek advice from art professionals; How important is ‘value’: do you consider yourself to be an ‘art buyer’ or a ‘collector’, or are they the same?
Since the advent of Conceptual Art in the late 1960s, artworks of any size, shape, form, material or medium have been made, purchased, conserved and displayed. Yet although contemporary art may now be ubiquitous, when it comes to buying art, or commissioning a piece of art directly from an artist, there isn’t a well-trodden path to follow for people who are not directly connected to the art world, and it remains mysterious and opaque.
Here is a guide to commissioning contemporary art as an individual buyer/collector: searching for the right artist, developing a dialogue, and an outline of the commissioning process.
Finding the Artist
Artists want to sell their work, or to be commissioned to make new work, without compromising the art they want to produce. Many artists are happy to build a discursive relationship with a potential collector/buyer who may want to commission a unique work for a specific site or situation. Axisweb, a platform for artists working across all mediums, styles and approaches in studios across the UK and internationally, allows you to:
• search for artists using key words,
• view their online portfolio
• contact the artist via their Axisweb profile page regarding availability, price, further information regarding the artworks, studio visits, etc.
We can also play the role of matchmaker or broker if you’d like to turn your commission into a ‘competition’, where artists respond to your advertised brief with proposals via our Opportunities service.
Commissioning New Artwork: Developing the Proposal/Brief
At the core of a contemporary art commission is the relationship between the artist and the commissioner and early dialogue between the two is vital in working out the parameters of the commission.
The first stage is to establish the brief: what is the artist going to produce? Think about the space where the artwork will be installed, the dimensions and materials of the artwork.
Maybe the artwork will be time-based, immaterial or event-based. For example, as cited in Louisa Buck’s Commissioning Contemporary Art (2012), Tino Sehgal’s interventions into institutional art spaces such as Tate Modern, ‘described as a ‘constructed situation’ are entirely dependent on the commissioning process. The object does not exist, the artwork resides in each individual participant’s experience. The artwork is a carefully orchestrated collaboration between the artist and commissioner, who has to agree that the piece exists only as the experience and memory of the visitor’s live encounter with the gallery attendant (performer) with no documentation, photographic records or written instructions allowed.’ (Louisa Buck & Daniel McClean, Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists, Thames & Hudson, 2012, p.60)
Devising a Contract
Regardless of the form the artwork is going to take, in order to achieve a successful commission, a shared agreement on the elements and parameters is essential:
• the artist’s proposed idea
• its process of production
• and the budget
• timescale for completion and delivery date
The contract should clearly map out the artist’s payment schedule, the timescale for the commission and the responsibilities of both the artist and the commissioner. It is a vital document which protects the artist’s rights in relation to the work after ownership has been transferred, and reduces the scope for misunderstanding.
With a ‘defined commission’, the artist’s proposal usually takes the form of a detailed written description, drawings and/or model which the artist will follow closely, presenting a clear idea of what the artwork will be. An open brief commission is more general and allows the artist greater freedom in its development. Whatever the brief, the content must include the artist’s promise to create the artwork as stated in the contract.
Budget, Fee, Payment
Devising a budget requires an understanding of the production process, the cost of goods and services to be used, travel expenses, and the artist’s time. Ensure the agreement clearly states who will pay for the materials and any other fabrication costs, for example, if part of the production will be handled by a third party. It is advisable to include a contingency budget of 10-15% to cover unforeseen costs.
The contract should state the artist’s fee, which may be separate to the production costs, and payment schedule. You may wish to release payments based on the artist achieving certain milestones outlined in your brief. Normal practice is to pay one-third upon agreeing the commission, a second payment mid way through the process and the final payment on completion and delivery of the artwork.
Delivery, Installation, Maintenance
Who is responsible for the delivery of the artwork? Are there any special delivery requirements? Who is responsible for insuring the artwork whilst in transit? What are the costs and who pays for delivery? Will the artwork you are commissioning require installing? If so who will do this? Installation may be carried out by the artist and/or a technician. Discuss this with the artist in advance and agree any potential costs. Does the artwork require any ongoing maintenance? What measure do you need to take (if any) to ensure the artwork remains in good condition?
Ownership & moral rights
Under copyright laws the artist possesses first ownership of a work of art they themselves have created. You need to agree in advance with the artist the ownership and copyright of the artwork.
A review is recommended to ensure both yourself and the artist are satisfied with the progress and direction of the commission. The number of meetings required will depend upon the size and scale of the commission.
Upon installation or receipt of the commission it is important you immediately examine the work carefully, as it may have incurred damage in transit. It can become complicated in proving damage after receipt if left for a period of time.
It is worthwhile meeting or contacting the artist following completion so that you can exchange feedback on the success of the commission. Discussing the commission is of mutual benefit and could aid the progress and ease of future commissions for both yourself and the artist.