According to an independent study, there were 1.4 million working artists in the world as of 2014. The number has likely grown since then. Regardless of the actual number, there’s clearly a lot of potential artists to choose from when deciding to either buy art from or to hire for art commissions. When commissioning artwork where do you start the search and how do narrow down your choices? I’ll offer my thoughts here coming from a fine art landscape photographer who has been marketing my work in some form or another for the past 16 years.
Traditionally, the way to find artists would be to attend gallery showings and from word of mouth. There’s a lot of gatekeepers in the gallery / museum world so the aesthetic and scope of work available in that context is often quite narrow. That’s both a good and bad thing. On one hand, the artwork has been vetted by experienced eyes but on the other hand, there are lots of amazing artists out there who don’t work the traditional gallery scene. Word of mouth has always been a true-and-tried method for networking and the fine art scene is no different. The limitation there is that you’re limited by who you and your contacts know. Other avenues to find artists include art fairs and photography contests that have a top-notch jury of gallerists and photography industry professionals.
Now here’s another option that isn’t limited by geographic proximity and social connections. You can do an infinite number of Google searches for your own specific need. The websites that tend to surface up generally are relevant to your search query. If I were limiting myself to my immediate local area (San Francisco Bay Area) without the benefit of the internet, imagine how difficult it would be to find photographers that specialize in “Los Angeles photography”, "abstract nature photography", "tree photography", etc... Seeking out artists directly on the web offers the most variety and is often the easiest way to your specific needs.
Once you’ve gone down the path of researching artists, the odds are that you’re often going to be deciding between one of several different artists to work with. How do you narrow down your choices from there? Here are some criteria I would suggest:
Art Commission Checklist
- Does the artist statement align with your vision? Artist statements are a staple of the art world and a brief statement can offer insight into what the artist is trying to accomplish.
- Does the artist do a sufficient job at explaining what art services and products that they offer? This one can be hard to qualify without having a phone conversion or an email exchange with the artist but good art websites feature easy to navigate websites that answer most of the common questions.
- Does the artist have a unique sales proposition? I know there are at least several photographers in my genre that try to copy my written content from the titles, format and even the messaging. If you find yourself on an artist website and feel like you’ve seen and read a lot of it before somewhere else then you should probably remove that person from your list. One fellow artist even copied half of my blog verbatim at one point until I reached out to him privately.
- Has the artist or photographer been published? A common tactic that inexperienced photographers utilize to inflate their limited record of publication is by posting magazine covers on their website that they didn’t actually photograph. Not only is that copyright infringement but working photographers should have their own cover credits, and spot use credits shouldn't be misconstrued as cover photos.
- Awards: Earning awards is one way that some artists set themselves apart. As mentioned earlier in this article, the prestigious awards usually feature a jury that consists of gallerists, museum curators and other art industry professionals. The less prestigious awards feature juries that mainly consist of fellow artists.
- Has the artist actually sold fine art or done commissioned assignment work before? Similar to my previous two points above, anyone can pretend to have expertise to some extent but where’s the proof? Social media following size is also not a good indicator of professional experience. There are many photographers on Instagram with large followings that don't actually sell any artwork. Artist websites should have some real-world examples of their work and testimonials. Now if commissioning art from an established artist is not on your priority list by all means feel free to hire anyone regardless of professional experience. Everyone has to start from somewhere but it’s a risk to say the least. Assignment work has a lot more pressure than just going out and creating art purely for creativity’s sake. I’ve done ad agency commercial assignment work and corporate fine art before so I’ll admit that it’s not all fun and games. It’s work. Creative work but it is work at the end of the day.
Awarding Art Commissions
Making the decision to commission a piece of art should be easier after factoring in all of this important information. Once you've decided whom you want to work with then you should reach out to the artist(s) or their rep for a RFP (Request For Proposal). Detail the project specs, give them a deadline to respond and once you've gotten your RFP's back then make a decision and promptly notify all the responders of your decision. Even if you don't select someone for an art commission assignment, it's a professional courtesy to acknowledge and thank people for their time. At the end of the day, you should go with your gut feeling since no one can tell you or convince you to like a certain artist or over another. Having all the pertinent information can give you piece of mind that you’re making the right decision.