Sometimes, you may find an artist whose work you admire, but have trouble finding the exact piece you want to buy. Or maybe the artist is selling privately, and few of their works are available on the open market. In such circumstances, you might consider commissioning a piece – but be sure you know what you’re doing before you go ahead. The financial arrangements, the decisions about the subject matter, and how and when the finished work is delivered all require careful thought before the commission goes ahead.
You can commission art either through a gallery, or directly from the artist. Going through a gallery gives you the advantage of expert advice, and could make getting a refund easier if too many problems arise. It is also considered proper etiquette to go through the gallery if it has introduced the artist to you.
However, one problem with commissioning through a gallery is that you will usually pay more overall. Some galleries, too, are so anxious to preserve their position as go-betweens that they will will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent you from meeting the artist, even with a gallery employee. This attitude means that deciding the subject matter is much more difficult. In fact, in one case, it caused the artist and I – both of whom were originally perfectly willing to observe proper etiquette – to make our own arrangements.
By contrast, a direct commission usually takes less time to arrange. You may receive a price closer to the wholesale price – but don’t count on it. You may also have trouble contacting the artist, although these days so many are on social media that is less of a problem than it was a few years ago.
But the most serious problem with a direct commission – for both you and the artist – is whether you can trust each other. Bad faith and outright theft sometimes happen on both sides of a direct commission, so before any money changes hands, you should learn what you can about the artist’s reputation (if they are experienced, they will be doing the same about you). After all, you could be spending thousands of dollars, and, if something goes wrong, your only recourse may be small claims court.
Whatever way you approach the artist, the subject and the design should be a balance between what you want and the artist’s interests. Personally, I see no reason to commission a standard mask such as a Hamatsa raven or a sculpture based on Raven’s theft of the light unless you have an interesting variation in mind. For me, the whole point of a commission is to get something unusual, and to give the artist a chance to do something the market might not otherwise allow them to do.
For that reason, I like to suggest a general subject or design, and hope that the artist will be intrigued enough to develop it in their own way. If possible, I ask for sketches to approve before the final work begins. What I am looking for is something that both intrigues the artist and will satisfy me.
Before the commission begins, you also need to discuss the financial arrangement. Some artists may expect no money until the commission is finished. However, a more common arrangement is for the buyer to pay one-third when the deal is accepted, one-third when the artist finishes, and one-third after any final adjustments requested by the buyer. This arrangement minimizes any possible loss for the buyer, and compensates the artist for their time if the buyer walks away from the deal.
Another matter you should specify is the approximate delivery time. Despite all the jokes artists make about “Indian time,” an increasingly number of artists these days take a professional attitude and do their best to meet their obligations, but, even so, the emphasis here is on “approximate.” You are dealing with art, not utilitarian manufacture, and by definition artists are perfectionists. As a result, a strict deadline would be almost meaningless even if you insisted on it. With the best of intention, slippage may happen, and, so long as you are kept informed, shouldn’t be a matter for concern unless it drags on indefinitely.
Even if completion is delayed, you may be content to wait. One commission took two years to complete – so long that I sometimes concluded that it would never happen. However, I felt reasonably sure that the artist meant to meet his obligation, and, in the end, he delivered a piece that I regularly describe as breathtaking.
As I said, it all comes down to how much you and the artist trust each other.
Speaking of which, it can’t hurt to write down the terms of the commission and have both you and the artist sign it, especially if the two of you have never worked together. In many cases, though, a commission is a verbal agreement, aside from any receipts you may receive from any gallery involved.
With all these considerations, commissioning can be an exhausting experience – and, sometimes, a harrowing one. So why attempt it? The answer is simple: a commission is a mental collaboration. As the buyer, you may not raise a carving tool or dip a paint brush, yet seeing the completed work can be an exhilarating experience. It gives you a small taste of what the Medicis must have felt as patrons of Renaissance Florence – a mixture of pleasure and pride that, indirectly the piece of work in front of you would never have existed except for you. Despite the many setbacks that can happen, that is an addictive feeling that you can easily come to want again and again.