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HELP DESK: Hell is Other People

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Welcome to HELP DESK, where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling -- or any other activity related to -- contemporary art. Together, we'll sort through some of art's thornier issues. Email helpdesk@dailyserving.com with your questions and save the comments section to chime in on the topics of the day. All submissions remain anonymous.

HELP DESK is a weekly column written for DailyServing.com and is sponsored in part by KQED.org.


Your counselor, hard at work.

What is the proper payment scheme for commissioned art? Also, what is the proper way to formalize the deal on payment? Finally what's the allowable time table for the artist to finish the art? Is it proper to follow up? I had a great deal from my favorite artist last February, after he agreed to make a piece for me at a price that I can afford. We agreed to meet up and discuss the subject, but now he's not contacting me.

Have I ever told you how much I love written contracts? No? Well, let's sit down and talk about it now.

Here are two things I believe: 1.) a good contract protects both parties equally; 2.) the written contract is your friend. From the limited information in your query, it's hard for me to know if you've already given this artist money or not, but it sounds like maybe you have. If that's the case, and you can't get a hold of this person over email or Facebook or telephone, it seems like you have two options: walk away or sue to get your money back. But since I'm not a lawyer, I'm going to go back to my real job of answering your more direct questions so that you can avoid disappointment in the future. So, from the top:


John Callcott Horsley, The Banker's Private Room Negotiating a Loan, 1870 (image: www.oceansbridge.com/paintings/artists)

What is the proper payment scheme for commissioned art? The proper payment scheme is the one that you and the artist decide on together. Some artists need the money to buy supplies, others want payment on delivery just like a regular sale. Still others will prefer a deposit and payments along the way. It depends on your budget, the artist's fiscal needs, and the comfort levels of both parties.

What is the proper way to formalize the deal on payment? What's the allowable time table for the artist to finish the art? Both parties sign a written contract that states the preferences decided on above, with an additional timeline scheduling payments and delivery dates.

Is it proper to follow up? Did you give this person money? Then hell, yes, it's proper to follow up! The contract that you wrote will have email addresses, physical addresses, and telephone numbers on it, so following up will be easy. Of course, you'll want to be diplomatic about any lapses (that is to say, "Just checking in..." instead of "Where's my damn painting?"--you never know when someone may have tripped over the cat and sprained a wrist), but in the end you'll have a contract to use as a negotiating tool if things go awry.


John Trumbull, General Washington Resigning His Commission, n.d. (image: images.fineartamerica.com)

Of course, this advice only touches on the financial aspects of commissioning. Readers who have been with me from the beginning will already know that I'm a fan of the book Art/Work by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber. Even in the absence of kickbacks and nepotism (I'm not related to either of them, I swear), I recommend that you buy a copy of this book and read "Chapter 11: Loans and Commissions," which outlines in greater detail the ins and outs of commissioning, including a sample Commission Agreement on pages 228-229.

I'm sorry you're in a muddle with this artist, and I sincerely hope you can work it out, and also that it doesn't keep you from commissioning work in the future. There are plenty of hard-working and responsible artists who would love to be asked to work on a commission. Good luck.


Openings: not as bad as you think (image: nateinabox.blogspot.com)

I am not great in social situations and everyone keeps telling me that if I don't go to openings I will never get any opportunities. I have a hard time forcing myself to go to shows and when I do I usually end up standing off to the side not talking to anyone. People usually tell me to "just talk to people" but that is much easier said than done. What should I do?

Art openings are like family holidays: you either love them or loathe them. If you've got a cool family filled with smart, fun people, the holidays rock. If you have to make small talk with a room full of strangers you see once a year, well...no wonder everyone talks about the suicide rates in December.

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