It is tough to write this story. In the end a commissioned project took an enormous toll on my mental health, personal life, and career. I will not mention any names, because this is not about holding grudges but about shedding light on crucial steps to take when dealing with clients commissioning our work.
An agency commissioned me to, based on a graphic image given to me, make an artwork for the walls of a corporate client’s meeting room. We agreed on a budget and a timeline, and the agency arranged a meeting between me and the client in the space. Importantly, he paid me directly after this meeting.
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Before the meeting, I asked the agency repeatedly for a contract, but my request was consistently ignored. This made me nervous, but I really needed this project. The pandemic had put enormous strain on my career, finances, and the renewal of my artist visa.
I met with the client in mid-March. We had a warm conversation, sharing our backgrounds, interests, and artistic tastes. At the end of the meeting, the client said he trusted me to make the work according to my own creative instincts.
I traveled to the agency’s studio in Long Island, and met with the owner — I will call her X. Initially, she was kind and accommodating. She said it would be best if I worked out of their studio, and I agreed. Although the commute would be an hour and a half, X offered to provide help with transportation to the train station. The space was larger than my studio, and the agency agreed to handle the whole installation when done. I only needed to concentrate on the work.
Then things began unraveling rapidly. Although the client had given me complete creative liberty, X became incredibly controlling. It was clear she did not have experience with working with artists, understanding what the creative process is like, or what it takes to execute an intricate, large-scale artwork. She constantly made me feel that I was behind, disorganized, and unreliable. It was exhausting, repeatedly explaining my experimental process as she and her team looked on doubtfully.
One day, when I was not present, X and her team moved the piece and made some trials without my consent. The following day, I came in to find my work stained. I sent a polite email saying this was unacceptable. In response, she came into the room and shouted at me: “I am the captain of this ship! These are all my materials. I bought and cut the panels you are working on, so it’s mine! Even if the client is paying you, I am the captain of this ship!”
She stopped assisting with the long, expensive commute, saying, “My team will no longer be able to concierge you. Take what you were paid for with grace and figure it out.” But the final straw, which made me decide to move the work back to my Manhattan studio (an excruciating and expensive choice), was her touching my materials without my permission. Working on my own was the only way I could finish the piece with grace.
Because I did this, X met with the client and thereafter cancelled a portion of the project. X then repeatedly called and emailed my art dealer telling her I was doing a terrible job, and that I was completely unprofessional. X claimed, because of her connections, she could completely ruin my reputation and career. She even suggested that she might take legal action against me.
By the end, it was obvious that X had no respect for me as an artist, a contractor, or a person. She constantly moved deadlines and asked for lengthy process reports. She had no understanding of my other commitments, including my part-time job as a teacher. I suffered from panic attacks, insomnia, and stress-induced eczema. This project was all I could think about.
In late May, I finished the piece, and invited X and the client’s assistant to visit the work. They made me wait five days without an answer. When they finally came to see the piece, they demanded several laborious changes, and refused to say whether these edits were on behalf of the client; in that meeting, I realized he had not even seen the pictures of the finished piece. I realized the only way to complete the project would be to contact the client directly.
I was able to find him on Instagram and messaged him privately, letting him know the piece was ready to view in my studio. The next day he was in my studio. He loved and approved the piece, only asking for minor edits. In July, five months after the initial contact, we finally had the unveiling (originally due mid-May), and of course, the agency did not help me with the installation, a whole other nightmare itself.
An artwork is not only a product: It is the combination of the mind, skills, and expertise of the artist. It requires time, planning, and emotional labor. While art is full of personal processes, the corporate world is full of “professional” ones, and a commissioned piece for a corporate setting is a combination of both. I thought it was not going to be a huge deal working without a contract since I had agreed on payment directly with the client, but there were many contingencies I didn’t anticipate such as due date changes, communication protocols, extensive edits — all of which can affect other projects or personal plans. A contract helps to establish transparent communication and provides legal protection. As artists, we are fortunate to have organizations such as Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) who can guide us through commissioned projects. I didn’t need their help at the end because I was very fortunate that the client turned out to be very decent, fair, and understanding. I hope other artists will benefit from my difficult experience and get proper guidance and protection before starting a commission.