PARTICIPATORY SPORT FOR CRAFT ARTISTS
I get asked a lot about doing commissions. Although I do them, it’s a minor part of my practice. Although the majority of my experiences with commission work are positive, I’ve had at least one horrible one I can think of off the top of my head. Because of this, I sometimes get a little nervous if the client isn’t someone I know well, and my approach is often informal. I am by no means an expert on this subject, so for this topic I thought I would consult a good friend who is much more familiar with this type of work. The following Q & A is from a conversation with Logan Woodle, a metalsmith who does a lot of commission work for individuals and businesses in Myrtle Beach, SC.
How long have you been doing commissioned work?
My work is primarily sculpture and jewelry. Within that it's basically anything goes. I have made 8 foot tall birds, bathroom sinks, and pearl encrusted pendants.
Method for determining pricing for commissions? Does Hourly + materials work for you?
That's always the hardest part of the job for me. When I am working with silver or gold hourly + materials x 2 works great, but with prices these days for those metals I use a lot of brass, bronze, and copper when people find out just how much the material for a piece is going to cost. When that happens I tend to charge a slightly higher hourly rate. It's not scientific, but it seems to work.
Does it depend on the person? Type of commission?
Most of my business comes from word of mouth, so I have to be very careful to price consistently. If one of my customers talks about how they got such a great deal on a sculpture and another says that I charged them an arm and a leg for something of equivalent time and materials my business is in trouble. Instead I design for the type of client. If they are a student at a local school I work towards a less time intensive design, whereas if they own a multinational corporation my design is going to make sure that I am working (and being paid) for a lot more hours. This being said I always have 3 designs. One at a third less than what I think they want to pay, one at that price, and one at a third more. You never want to forget this student may be trying to make a real investment, or that your CEO may be just looking for a paperweight on a corner table in their closet.
Also, make sure you know the intentions of the piece. Is it significant because of its meaning, of is it a status symbol? These all are very strong clues to the client's intentions on cost.
How much of your pricing structure do you reveal to the collector?
I am very open about my pricing structure. If a client is concerned about why a piece costs what it does, I will break down the whole project into its cost points for them. I find that people want skilled labor, and if anything they are more willing to pay the price I set when they know how I pay myself.
How do you establish payment? Invoice? Up front deposits?
ALWAYS GET HALF UP FRONT! Never break this rule. Not even for Cousin Billy Bob who you went to school with for 10 years. If you can't cover your expenses and someone walks away when you have just paid for $1,000 in materials and expendables it could mean you miss paying your rent or worse. This isn't a matter of if it happens, it's a matter of when, and you have to be prepared for it. Don't count on contracts. If someone bails on a contract you are going to have a long wait before you can get that money back if the lawyer doesn't cost more than the money you lost. Make sure you do your client the same courtesy as well. They are likely just as worried about you walking off with their cash so give them receipts.
How do you charge design time? Installation time for larger works?
I try to charge design time up front. If you are going to spend a full day drawing for someone it's going to be a bad surprise if they say, "No thanks" and you are out all of those hours. I typically charge clients for rounds of drawings. The first quick sketches are free, but the revisions cost my hourly wage.
Do you have binding legal documents/contracts? If so, when is it necessary? What is crucial to include?
Always have a contract. The longer you are working the more detailed it will become, but I have learned the hard way to include:
1. Cost: you would be shocked at the number of times I have had clients asking me on the day they pay the balance on a commission what they owe.
2. Calendar: you need to make sure that they know when to expect updates, when to pay you, and when you are installing. It's bad when you go to do final angle grinding and they are setting up for a dinner party.
3. Do you cover repairs, and if so for how long?
4. How will this object age, and how should they care for it? I have to explain how to get outdoor sculptures through hurricanes and explain that nothing is tornado proof.
Have you ever turned down a commission? How do you know when to back out/deflect and how do you do it strategically?
I have, but very rarely. Getting out of the situation is more difficult. Most things I have walked away from were just out of my skill set, and so I will often refer someone to another artist. If it has more to do with turning down a client than a commission I may just tell them that I am all booked up for the next few months and I will get back to them when time allows. I have a hard time turning down money for good.
What's the scariest commission situation?
When you take on a project that you know you can do, but nobody has ever given the chance to try before. Oh, and when your client isn't returning your calls after you are already a week into a project (take it from me, they are probably just on vacation).
How do you satisfy artistic intent/license and customer expectation simultaneously (or establish boundaries therein)?
For me the best part of commissions is getting to find the balance between these things. I find you have to make sure you and the client are really listening to each other. It's your job to find what makes them happy, even when they tell you it's a butterfly, and find the artistic merit in it. I make sure to emphasize that they have come to me because they want something they can't get anywhere else. So if they like butterflies you find out why. Is it because of the movement, the color, symmetry? Did their mom wrap them in a butterfly blanket when they were sick? Then you take that somewhere artistic.
Do you prefer working for individuals or companies? Why? Do you approach these the same way or differently?
I really like working for companies. For me being able to present how my art will improve the income of a business is amazing. It's hard for someone to say art doesn't matter when it's affecting their bottom line.
With an individual you really get to show them what they want, but with a business you are showing why you are the most qualified person to determine what they need.
Anything else you think is relevant/helpful/advice/whatever.
The best thing that you can do is be persistent. I spend a lot of time walking into local businesses and trying to show them what I think they need. I get a ton of no's and polite "I'll think about it's, but yes's are very rare. Just realize that is the way it works for everybody, and that even when you get a no from an owner it doesn't mean they won't show a friend who does need something your card six months down the road. And start small. If you want to make a $6,000 sign for somebody you have never met they aren't likely to trust you just because you have a degree. Sell them on something small first, to build up trust, then move on the bigger deal.
What are your thoughts/opinions/approaches on dealing with the details of commission work? I'd love to hear your experiences, bad or good, so that we all may learn from them!