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Asking an artist to make a bespoke artwork for you – a good idea or a bad one? Art commissions explained

Portraiture is one of the first types of artwork that many people engage with. Selfies for the Gen Zs are the de regueur version of portraiture. The mainstay of many family homes is a keepsake of special moments captured in photography, such as graduation or family portraits. And many people want to personalise such images by asking an artist to recreate the work – something called art commissions.

Commissioning art has historically been a way for people to display their wealth and power. If we are talking about individuals, it might sound like something done only by public figures and aristocrats (think the National Portrait Gallery in London, England). Artists like Da Vinci gained popularity because of the high demand for commissioned works from members of the upper class. And the same thing happens today with many people asking their favourite local artists to commission something for them. It can become tricky, so here are some considerations about commissioning artwork.

Impact on the artist’s creative process and lifetime body of work

We love artists because they see something in the world around us, in humanity, in the human condition and its range of emotions or want to make a statement about something. And they do so by creating beautiful artworks and objects. In fact, that is why you like a particular artist – for their artwork and the unique way they create things.

So imposing something on them may feel like stifling or obstructing their creative process. This is one of the “purist” reasons why many artists turn down commissions.

If you’re buying art for investment, remember that the ability to sell is vital. The collector takes a risk that the commission might end up being out of step with the rest of the artist’s work. This might make that work hard to sell should a collector ever need to sell. That said, this point is less relevant if you are super famous like Elon Musk or Barack Obama.

Another crucial factor is for an artwork to be recognisable in the context of the rest of the artist’s work so that authentication isn’t an issue should you ever lose the Certificate of Authenticity. Side note: using a platform like Capital Art means you can safely store the Certificate of Authenticity in the cloud and minimise the risk of losing it.

Art commissions can be a headache for everyone involved

Commissions require constant communication to ensure that the buyer of the artwork is happy with the artwork in the end. That means the buyer engages with the process and sees the painting as it progresses if that is the chosen medium. That is not typical of the usual process an artwork goes through. So artists feel like they need to complete a commission before starting any other work.

This means that commissions can be disruptive to an artist’s usual practice. Some collectors have a rule around pay that reimburses the artist for the opportunity cost of working on a commission and not their standard work practice. This helps the artist focus on the commissioned work. Still, many collectors are not doing so. This balancing act can mean commissions are a headache for artists rather than a creativity-inducing and positive experience.

When both the art collector and the artist are novices to commissions, it can be a headache for everyone involved. The art collector might be vague about what they want, the objective of the work or have a vision that is not aligned with the artist’s style of work. That can result in them not liking the end result. And the artist might be shy to ask for a stipend to create the commission or feel that the constant check-ins are intrusions on their creative process. This can leave the artist frustrated by it all.

Public commissions are covered later, but in some cases, artists end up having to destroy commissioned work if no one buys it. That can be a headache and lead to many bills for the artist, which can be pretty unfair.

When do art commissions make sense?

Public Commissions are an excellent way for something bespoke to be made that will be recognisable. Public commissions benefit the entity commissioning the artwork (usually a public entity) and the artist.

They are generally organised by cities or even countries. Think of the African Renaissance monument in Dakar, Senegal. Similarly, Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting “Guernica” was commissioned by the Spanish Republic Government to commemorate the bombings of Guernica.

Public Commissions are also made to make a particular statement. One example is the artworks commissioned for the Lumières d’Afriques exhibition at COP21 (the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference). 54 artists from each African country created artwork around the theme “The Illuminated Africa”. The resulting exhibition was curated to question and highlight the energy challenge faced by Africa.

Suppose your objective is to build an extensive collection of commissioned works from various artists. In that case, that in and of itself will make the group of commissioned works notable.

Tips when commissioning an artwork

So you’ve decided to take the plunge and ask an artist to make bespoke artwork for you. Here are some tips:

  • Ask if the artist has done commissions before or not. It is recommended to instead ask an artist who accepts requests for commissions or use a platform that offers commissions or a freelancer platform to source someone who can be commissioned to create an artwork;
  • Don’t take it personally if the artist declines the commission, especially if they have not done them before or do not do them regularly;
  • Think about the subject you would like and what style would suit it best;
  • Provide the artist with as many details as you can about what your vision is, where the artwork will be situated and other elements of creative inspiration;
  • It is best to have a contract between the art practitioner and the buyer or commissioner of the artwork. The Visual Arts Network of South Africa’s Best Practice Guide has some guidelines on how private (and public) commissions should work;
  • Keep communicating with the artist about progress so that the cost and impact of revisions are kept to a minimum; and
  • Try and have fun with the process.

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