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Commission: Possible

Commission: Possible

Tips for Commissioning Custom Art

Commission: Possible

Tips for Commissioning Custom Art
February/March 2020 issue of American Craft magazine
Serge Bloch illustration
Serge Bloch

My beloved quarter horse Jack could be a snarky rascal. But whenever I brushed his tail and sang his favorite song, he turned into a teddy bear. When Jack died last year, I wanted to commemorate those sweet moments in a special piece of art. So I commissioned a miniature horsetail basket from Colorado artist Linda Aguilar, who has made about 6,000 of them in her 40-year career.

To “commission art” sounds fancy, but it’s just asking an artist to make something especially for you. Anyone who buys art on any size budget can do it. Custom art can involve tweaks to existing designs, such as changing the color or size, or it might require dreaming up something new from scratch. A commissioned piece has an extra layer of personal meaning, a direct link to its creator, and a unique story the buyer helps unfold. It’s fun. And, just as important, it’s one of the best ways to support artists whose work you love.

For individual buyers, commissioning work is a very personal transaction for which there are few fixed rules. Over the years, I’ve had to learn from my mistakes. I once asked an artist to draw a portrait of a white pine in my yard that had split into six trunks and grown three stories tall. The unique part of the tree was near the ground, but I wasn’t clear enough about what I wanted, and the artist’s finished work was of the treetop.

And years ago, when I commissioned glass mosaic artist Bailey Aaland to make a fireplace surround that reflected my adoration of fireworks, quite a bit of time passed before I realized I hadn’t asked what it would cost. (It was Aaland’s first commission, and mine, too. Luckily, our numbers lined up.)

The process of commissioning art doesn’t need to be bumpy. For ideas on how to smooth the way for both artists and buyers, I spoke with Kentucky glass and metal artist Dan Neil Barnes and furniture designer and maker Christina Boy of Virginia. Both regularly make custom art, and neither recalls ever having a disappointed commission buyer.

Speak up.
If you fall in love with someone’s work but don’t see exactly what you want, ask if they accept commissions. Not all artists do, but for many others, it’s a huge part of their income. “People shouldn’t be afraid to approach artists,” Boy says. “The majority of the time, they’d be happy to help you.”

Are you a good match?
Buyers can find out about an artist’s methods and style at shows, by word of mouth, or via internet searches.

Artists, on the other hand, can get an idea of who the customer is by paying close attention in conversations. Barnes believes this is crucial for a successful commission. “Part of what I do is read the client,” he says. “You have to be a listener and communicator.” Accepting clients who will understand his art and process protects the good reputation Barnes has earned, and he politely turns away potential buyers when he senses they aren’t a good fit.

Numbers first.
An artist’s existing work suggests their price range, and buyers know what they can spend. Boy discusses a buyer’s budget first, which allows her the opportunity to explain factors that affect pricing (the cost of materials, the complexity of the design, and how many hours it will take to make, for example), and to suggest ways to make a project fit the customer’s means; for instance, perhaps a smaller or less expensive version of an existing work can be made. “Just because it’s a custom piece doesn’t mean it’s going to be two or three times more,” she says, although a work that requires new tools, methods, or materials might cost a little more than, say, changing the wood on a table she already makes. Like many artists, she requires a 50 percent deposit.

Clarify the vision.
Some clients like to give an artist creative freedom and set only a few parameters, such as budget and size. Others may have a specific idea in mind, but struggle to explain it, “or don’t even know what they want until they see it,” Boy says. She spends a lot of time up front coaxing out customers’ ideas with questions, and by having them gather fabric swatches, images of other objects they like, and photos of where the work will be placed. Then she translates everything into drawings for signed approval. Barnes also creates scale models when needed, and he sends samples of the actual glass he’ll use so there’s no room for surprises.

Agree on progress updates.
How many photos, phone calls, studio visits, or emails will happen, and at what points of the process? “It depends on the client as to how much they want to be involved,” Boy says. This step helps set boundaries and keep a project on track.

Stick to the plan.
Once a buyer and artist agree on a project, the buyer should be able to expect that’s what they’ll get. “Artists sometimes want to go off on their own and do whatever moves them in the moment,” Barnes says, “but I have to follow the guidelines I set for [buyers]. If you can’t do that, then you don’t need to be making custom work. I’m very careful about what I say, and very careful to do what I say.”

Buyers, have patience.
Artists have to fit in commissions around their other projects and income streams. When Barnes agreed to make a 12-foot-long, 4-foot-high wall piece out of thousands of tiny squares of stained glass for a residence, “I told [the buyers], ‘It’s going to be a year before I can even start. I’ve got shows scheduled, and I have a commission for a bank that I have to produce.’ I was honest with them.”

Have a plan in case things fall apart.
Requiring a deposit and a signed agreement protects both artists and buyers from total loss if things don’t work out. But as Barnes and Boy have found, that never needs to happen if both makers and buyers listen to each other and are clear about the project. As Barnes puts it, “Keep it simple, do what you say, and don’t veer from it.”