Saturday, May 7, 2011

Artists and Commissions

Note: This is a post I wrote for and was originally published there in Mar 2011.  I am reprinting it here as a response to a Twitter stream.  Thanks . Whitney
For a variety of reasons, some artists dislike working on this basis, preferring instead to sell only what has already been completed.  Others of us enjoy the challenge and the conversation to balance and coordinate our ideas with that of our client.
Final touches
What contributes to getting a commission? (And here I am speaking only of private commissions, not public or corporate ones.)
Listening is the first and, I think, most critical.  We listen for that which impresses the viewer, because, after all, it has to be more than just a “that’s nice” reaction to our work to interest them in a specially made piece.  Each artist has a gut feeling about the strength of his own work.  Is it born out by the viewer?  Or, can you hear a potential problem – perhaps, “I love that piece, but not the colors” or “Beautiful colors! Too big, though.”  There are hesitations to listen for, and tones, and casual comments – “Hmmmmm” and “That would look great in your bathroom, Alice,” and “Good colors, but not so much for the bedroom, do you think, Honey?” or “Hmmmm, not quite."
So is a positive comment always a positive?  And is a negative one always a negative?  No, to both questions.
Loving someone’s work doesn’t automatically mean anything.  It is, however, an invitation to ask your own questions.  “What is it about the piece that you most like?”  (Appreciate that they may be in awe and inclined to burst out with “Everything!” but encourage them to be more specific.)  Now here is the place where sales books tell you to begin inquiring about their home and “qualifying” them.  I HATE this approach. I’m not a car salesman.  This person who is standing in your booth or studio or gallery is most likely responding to your work on an emotional level.  For me, that is the signal that we have a place where we might relate to one another. Instead of assessing her shoes and asking, “Do you collect original art?” I might ask if she gardens (because she is staring at my garden painting) or “Are you from here?  Are you watching for the hummingbirds to come back?” (because I have some in another piece).  Take a few moments to find what moves this person, because what moves her in her role as viewer, as potential client, is what may move you, motivate you, inspire you.  A piece of your self, your being, your soul can make a difference in a client’s life.  Learning a bit about who she is as an individual can open the door to the possibility of a long and successful artist/client relationship.  Finding spaces for relatedness connects both ourselves and our art to other human beings.  Relatedness never happens in isolation 
Similarly, “Nice colors, but it won’t work,” may sound negative, but in actuality is not at all.  Acknowledging their appreciation of your colors is the open door.  “Thanks – I’m glad you like my colors!  But what is it that won’t work?  I’m always interested in people’s difficult spaces.”  Your interest in their space is personal and caring.  I have had this conversation many times in my career.  Sometimes the resolution I see requires a different kind of artwork, and I am able to suggest artists who might be a better fit.  Often it is just an issue of position or shape or pattern – basic design principles of which they may not have a working knowledge.  It’s a great feeling to see their eyes light up when they see the possibility of one of my suggestions working for them.  And what better way to develop trust but to help in a generous manner without agenda.  If you don’t get the immediate sale, I guarantee that you will see the benefit down the line as they tell their friends all about you and your work.”
After you have developed the seeds of a relationship with your potential client, what comes next? 
Instead of announcing that you do a lot of commission work, why not suggest looking at their problem space together – maybe try a few pieces in the space to see what kinds of shapes/colors/sizes might work?  “Perhaps we’ll come up with some fresh ideas – then we can go from there.  I’d love to be part of the solution!”
Artists have good eyes.  That means if we use them, it is easy for us to take in a great deal of visual information, assimilate it, and generate many possibilities to solve spatial and design problems.  Are you approaching commission work with your eyes wide open, or are you just looking for a quick sale – no fuss, no muss?  It’s perfectly ok not to be interested or inspired by collaborating with the client.  If this is the case, just be clear about it within your own mind, be generous – give the client some artist’s names who might better be able to meet their needs.  Be clear about boundary lines –“I can incorporate this idea of yours, but not that.”  But, if you like this type of problem solving, then enter their home, eyes open to the myriad of details in their surroundings.  Why is the problem area a problem?  Listen to why they think it’s a problem.  Are they looking at your sculptures which are clearly not going to fit into the 4” deep niche?  Should they be considering a painting or shallow wall sculpture instead?  Can you see a place where they might be able to place your large sculpture?  Suggest it.  Perhaps you are a painter and they like garden paintings but have four broad-view garden paintings already in the room.  Suggest to them that perhaps they would like to consider a close up of the iris – one bloom in fine detail – to set off their wonderful collection of garden paintings.  Do you hate the other paintings?  Do not be insincere, but look at their home from their viewpoint.  After all, you are not the one living in the home.  They have paid you the complement of loving your work.  Respect their other choices.
Listening. Seeing the fun in problem solving. Respecting your audience.  Require 50% deposits and gurantee your work (they will be less anxious and, after thirty years of being an artist, I’ve never had to return anyone’s deposit).

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