To Commission or Not to Commission (Art)

Having a piece made specially for your home, company or institution is easier than you might think

The art of commissioning.

The art of commissioning. Illustration by Jon Krause

The conversation often starts with the collector saying to the gallerist, “We love what he’s doing. Can we get something?” Well, of course, and they’ll browse through the available work from the artist in question. And most collectors are happy with whatever they can get, especially if the artist’s work is much sought-after. But sometimes buyers want something a bit different than what’s on hand—something smaller, for instance, or with other colors.

Perhaps that collector is looking for a sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas in a particular size, or a painting by Odili Donald Odita that is similar to work he or she has seen that is no longer available. The conversation evolves, and the gallery director makes a call to the artist, asking if he or she would be willing to take on a private commission. It might sound gauche to ask a noted artist to make something custom for your living room, but what collectors want, they often get.

These requests “come up a lot,” said New York City gallery owner Sean Kelly, usually two or three per month on average. The requests  come from architects designing office buildings or homes, museum curators, private collectors and art advisors representing collectors, and executives at corporations that acquire art. “In June, we had five or six private commissions. It’s like waiting for a London bus. You wait, and wait, and wait, and then they all come in a bunch.”

Still, he noted, “we don’t advertise it as a service, and most clients wouldn’t even think to ask.” But there are rarely any drawbacks for the gallery, other than perhaps one fewer work for the gallery to exhibit, and the connection between the buyer and the artist is strengthened, which makes future purchases of the artist’s work at that gallery more likely.

Indeed, private commissions create a “pride factor” on the part of the buyer, said Manhattan dealer Renato Danese, co-owner of Danese/Corey, which has arranged a number of private commissions over the years for the artists it represents. “The collector is part of the creative process in terms of indicating what he wants and seeing it come to life. He forms a partnership with the artist, and you can’t put a price on that feeling,” he said.

For collectors, art is not solely an investment of money but one of time and interest. They often are purchasing more than just an object but a story about the piece, and a private commission allows them to talk about the artist and their relationship with that person, as well as the genesis of the artwork and how it progressed. That extra involvement adds considerable personal value to the commissioned work. However, a commission doesn’t necessarily cost any more than other work, and, from the artist’s standpoint, the gallery’s percentage often is less than for artworks exhibited and sold at the gallery. New York’s Julie Saul Gallery, for instance, reduces its percentage from 50 to 28 percent when there is a private commission, and San Francisco dealer John Pence lowers his to 25 percent, “even though private commissions are more labor intensive for us,” he said.

There often is more work for the dealers. The gallery takes charge of the details, interviewing the buyers about what they want and discussing the pros and cons with the artists, setting up times for artist and buyer to meet and talk, writing up a contract, setting the price and handling the money, as well as acting as mediator for any disputes that may arise during the process. “Questions and answers go through us,” Mr. Danese said. “We can work out issues of alterations and modifications by talking to one side, then the other, and do it in a more comfortable way than if the artist and buyer try to resolve it directly.”

John Pence regularly is asked whether one of the artists he represents, figurative painter Will Wilson, will do private portraits. Mr. Wilson sometimes takes those. However, “for private clients, I don’t offer preliminaries. I keep them in the dark until I’m finished,” which is when Mr. Pence may need to field calls. “One client wanted a different nail polish, and John was friendly with the client and friendly with me, so I said O.K. Another client holding a chainsaw wanted not to be holding anything in his hand, even though there was a lot of wood around on the ground, and John listened to the client and then talked to me…I took out the chainsaw.” Just as important, Mr. Wilson added, “John goes after clients for payment,” which the artist is glad he doesn’t have to do.

Client and gallery must decide when the commissioned work will be completed, the structure of payments (half up front and the remainder when completed, for example, or divided into three parts) and how the work will be approved (based on a submitted design, halfway through or at the end). It is rare, but sometimes a commissioned work is rejected. Odili Donald Odita noted that, in one instance, he was “shocked” when a client turned down the painting he had created. “He didn’t like the shape—a large triangular shape—that I included in the painting,” but the artist turned the work over to his dealer for exhibition. “It was a disappointment, but it sold quickly.” He added that he kept the up-front deposit and created another work that the buyer “liked a lot, and the money he had paid me went toward that second painting.”

Mr. Odita said that he may have been somewhat at fault in not paying close enough attention to what the buyer was seeking. “When there is a commission like this, I meet with the client usually just once, although we may have further conversations through email,” he said. “I try to get a sense of the client’s history, asking, ‘What kind of clothing do you like? What colors mean something to you? Where have you lived?’ ” In this instance he realized that he “needed to listen better, hearing the person’s comments and what he is really saying, then taking that information and funneling it through my sensibility,” he said.

Some artists may feel more comfortable meeting and talking with prospective buyers than others. Hank Willis Thomas stated that initial conversations with collectors looking to commission him make him nervous. “This isn’t a job on spec. I don’t want requests to change something,” he said, adding that some of his artist friends have faced these situations with private commissions. “Certainly, I don’t want to do all this work and have someone reject it. I have to make that clear at the outset without my actually saying it.”

Jessica Stockholder, who has had private commissions arranged through her New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash, even enjoys the getting-to-know-you process. “I like to look at what else they have in their homes,” she said. “My work is very consciously specific to the context, and I need to see if what I might propose would work.” She also asks buyers to describe their interest in her work and what they might have in mind. That communication “develops a relationship with the work that is important, because artists want their work valued beyond just the monetary aspect.”

At times, a buyer may be looking for a work by the artist along the lines of what the artist had done in the past. Mr. Odita has had some of those and thought, “‘Oh, my God, I have to paint the same thing again,’ ” but recognizes that the commission represents a chance to “reinvestigate a subject, asking different questions.” Art is still a business, after all. For Mr. Thomas, the largest benefit of a private commission is that he knows that he can be free to pursue a project without worries of whether anyone will buy it. “A commission may allow me to pursue something that I haven’t had the resources to do yet, and make it happen,” he said. One such commission came in 2008 from noted collectors Donald and Mera Rubell, who were seeking one of the artist’s photographic installations. “The Rubells asked how many images in the series I was planning to do. I had the presence of mind to say 82, and the money I received allowed me to create all those pieces.” That project, called “Branded,” went into the permanent collection of the Rubells’ private museum in Miami.

Requests for private commissions are not always met with approval. Artists may bristle at being told what to do and what colors to use; they may be loath to do something they had done before. “Been-there-done-that, probably not. Slightly out of the ordinary gets an artist’s attention,” Mr. Kelly said. The artist may not have the time, or a proposed subject may not appeal to the artist. “A corporation wanted me to include some of its products in a still-life,” said painter Scott Prior. He said no. Mr. Odita was asked to produce a photograph of a large building of a family-owned store, “and the work would celebrate its success.” Nope. “I don’t want my work to seem like decoration.”

To Commission or Not to Commission (Art)