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Undertaking a Commission: Guidance Notes for Artists


Realising a public art commission is a complex affair, involving a wide range of interested parties: local politicians, planners, safety officers, the funding body, local community, local council, sub contractors and, not least, the artist. Successful completion of the project requires two things: firstly, that all parties know and play their role effectively and, secondly, that there is very good communication between them.

Whilst it should be possible to take for granted good practice by the other parties, most artists will have experience of the principle "if something can go wrong, it will". Whether through lack of clarity, bad judgement, misinformation or conflicting agendas, reality often falls short of the ideal. The problem for the artist is that the majority of the other key players will be in salaried positions and their personal incomes are not usually affected by whether the commission is progressing well or badly. On the other hand, the artist is frequently on a fixed budget and uniquely vulnerable. Mistakes and inexperience on the part of other people can cost the artist time and money, directly affecting their income from the project.

These notes are intended to help artists evaluate a potential commission, identify likely problems and put in place measures to limit their consequences. As such, they constitute an advocacy for the artist by the creation of proper boundaries around their role in a public art commission.

They can be used in conjunction with the excellent advice in Public Art Commissions: GoodPractice, by Henry Lydiate.

Key Principles

There are three key principles in undertaking a public art commission

  • Information - Time spent early on researching the commission will go a long way towards avoiding problems later on.
  • Clarity - Set very clear boundaries. Define clearly and exactly what your role is and what you are being paid to do. Be clear about what you expect from other people.
  • Assertiveness - Be very assertive about the boundaries identified above. Flexibility is a wonderful thing but not if the artist ends up carrying the costs.

The following 5 steps are intended to help the artist apply these key principles. The importance of a rigorous and detailed approach to information and boundaries cannot be overstated. The tighter the safety net, the more security there is to get on with the real business of the commission - creative acrobatics. Where a commission is being broken down into a number of smaller contracts, such as a design phase and a build phase, steps 1 to 5 can be worked through for each contract.

Keep a diary of the entire project. Log all conversations - who said what and when. Log the dates and times of all telephone calls, emails, faxes etc. Record all hours worked and the work undertaken. Not only will this provide essential information in the event of a later dispute, it will also be a valuable document in assessing and costing a future project. There may be a considerable time overhead in keeping this diary. Ensure it is properly costed for in section 4.

1) Why do you want to do the project?

It may seem an obvious question, but being clear about the reason for undertaking a commission can help greatly in making clearer judgements later on. For example a project you are undertaking primarily for financial reward may require different decisions to one which offers a once-in-a-lifetime creative challenge.

2) Mapping the project

Gain as much information as possible about the commission, how the project is structured and the involvement of local authorities. Who is responsible for approving designs? Who authorises payments etc? The interview is as much an opportunity for the artist to assess the competency of the commissioner as it is for the commissioner to select an artist. Ask questions. Draw a mind map diagram and think what agenda each person will be pushing. Determine the lines of responsibility and liability. Map out what and who will be involved at each stage of the commission.

small version of the diaram. Link: open a larger version

  Follow this link to open a large version of the diagram...

3) What are the risks involved?

There are two component parts to a commission - the actual creative input of the artist and the overall project management. It is a matter of experience and the complexity of the project as to how much project management the artist undertakes. A commission involving many sub-contractors and complex schedules may require a professional project manager. It is also a matter of choice as to whether the artist wants to be concerned only with the creative aspects of the commission. This section is designed to help the artist make an informed choice and gauge the risks.

Using the information gained in section 2, make a detailed list of what can go wrong for both the artist and the commissioner:


Run an inventory of the skills and resources necessary to undertake the commission for each of the following headings:

  • Creative input and production - Are the skills necessary to undertake the commission in place or is there likely to be a learning curve with new methods? Are there difficult technical issues to be resolved? How much of the manufacture will be carried out by the artist? Will it require additional plant and equipment?
  • Consultation - If the commission requires community consultation how involved will this process be. Does it require facilitation of a community design process or simply a rubber stamping of the artist's ideas? How much support will be provided by the commissioner?
  • Installation - If the artist is responsible for installation what roles do they take on by default e.g. do they become the site health & safety officer? Are they qualified for that role? If installation requires foundations are they responsible for liaising with the utility companies regarding underground cables? Is the artist qualified for that role? Are there limits to the size of vehicle that can make delivery?

Project Management

  • Finance - How will the finance be managed? Will the finance be managed strictly on a project budget basis or become part of general business turnover? Is Limited Company status desirable? Is the commission part of a sub-contracting chain? How difficult will it be to get payments authorised?
  • Scheduling - How much is the progress of the project directly under the artist's control? How accurately can a schedule be drawn up? Does the artist's schedule need to tie in with another contractor's? What factors will affect progress?
  • Sub Contractors - If used, are the sub contractors known to be reliable? How much supervision will they require? What kind of contract will they require?
  • Administration - How complex is the project? Is the project likely to require lots of meetings and time spent liaising with other people? Will regular reports need to be written?


Does the commissioner have all the necessary skills to oversee the commission?If many different professionals are involved, how well do they communicate?Have they worked together before? How much experience do they have ofpublic art projects? What happens when the planning department is on holiday?How does this affect the schedule?

4) Costings

For detailed information on costings and contracts, refer to Henry Lydiate's paper where he cites five stages:

origination and fee

fabrication, fees and costs

installation, fees and costs

maintenance, fees and costs

ownership, moral rights and copyright

In each of the stages cost a "worst case scenario". What are the financial implications of the assessments in section 3. For example what effect will late deliveries by sub contractors have? Will late payments incur overdraft and loan fees for the artist?

Charge a "handling" percent on materials and sub-contract costs. Aim for a project which can very easily be delivered for a given budget. Leave ample margins for contingencies.

5) Contract

Armed with the information from the previous stage, it is now possible to start negotiating a contract. There are other advice sheets on the PASW website which refer to what should be included in the contract. It is worth remembering that whilst the contract is, in theory, legally binding, it is only as meaningful as both parties' willingness to abide by it and has only as much leverage as either party's will to enforce it. It is there for clarity and as an absolute bottom line. The caveat for the artist is that most contracts are with local authorities or large organisations who have in-house solicitors, the full weight of which can be used if necessary. The artist will have to hire in, at considerable cost, legal expertise. As suggested at the beginning of these notes, a rigorous approach to clarity and boundaries will pre-empt the contract ever being waived!


In the ideal world, the contract is equally binding on both parties. In reality it seldom is. A commission not delivered on the due date by the artist assumes a greater significance than a payment date missed by the commissioner. A letter unanswered by an artist is unprofessional whilst an organisation has been just "too busy" to provide written information. There are potentially many shades of grey for both parties when it comes to good practice. Contracts don't usually go into such fine detail but it is a good idea to draw up a list of acceptable standards, which both parties agree and sign. At least this will form a commonly agreed bench mark which both parties can aim for. The degree of precision and commitment asked of the artist should be matched by the commissioner. If the commissioner is unwilling to agree, ask yourself why?

The list might include:

  1. Any request for written confirmation by the other party will be honoured in 7 working days.
  2. Both parties agree to return phone calls within 48 hours.
  3. A clear agreement as to what the payment terms mean i.e. does "payment within twenty one days" mean they agree to ensure payment will be received within 21 days or that it will be posted second class on day 21?
  4. Parties agree a person who is the "point of contact" in each organisation.
  5. Parties agree to inform each other of changes of circumstance which are likely to affect the progress of the commission.
  6. Parties agree not to withhold payments or deliveries without explanation.
  7. Parties agree to an open and honest dialogue, on a bilateral basis, about conduct which is hampering progress.

Producing the Commission

The aim of the last five steps is to arrive at a point where work on the commission can begin in the very best conditions for its successful completion.

Whilst the artist is in control of their own working practice, the circumstances around the commission may change. New personnel are brought in, community requirements change or unforeseen difficulties with the site occur. The artist will need to continually assess the situation, gain information, identify and assert boundaries. It is a serious mistake to assume that other parties will act in the best interests of the artist. They will be seeking to realise their own agendas. It is vital that the artist takes responsibility for protecting his/her rights and income.

Noel Perkins has many years experience as a practicing sculptor and has undertaken a range of Public and Community Arts Projects in the South West. In addition he facilitates workshops and training courses aimed at developing the creativity of local communities, businesses and organisations. He can be contacted via his website: www.mydogcoulddothat.com

© Copyright Noel Perkins 2002 All Rights Reserved

For further information, email: [email protected]

June 2002

Public Art Commissions - Good Practice