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How Not to Get Screwed When Signing a Contract

By Danielle Siembieda-Gribben, EAP Fellow

For anyone just starting out in the public art world, it can seem tempting to take any commission you can get. No doubt it is competitive out there, and there may be dozens of people applying for the same calls for proposals.

If you have been one of the lucky few to receive a public art commission, you may be saying to yourself: “I am so lucky to even get selected, let me sign the contract before they change their minds!”

Before you do, think twice — and come prepared.

On January 31, 2012, I attended a webinar from California Lawyers for the Arts titled “Public Art Contracts: What Every Artist Needs to Know about Public Art Commissions, from RFQ to Moral Rights.”

Here are the top ten tips that I took away from the seminar.

  1. You will only receive 15 to 20 percent of the commission budget. For example, if the budget is $30,000, you will receive $4,500 for the entire duration of the project, from design to fabrication through execution. The lower the commission, the lower the artist fee.
  2. Your ideas are yours, not the city’s. When you present your proposal, put your name, copyright, and date on every page and slide. By doing this, you prevent others who may borrow or “appropriate” your idea to be built by someone else.
  3. If you are working with fabricators, do not sign any contracts with them until your own contract is finalized. Some fabricators may charge you for their design time and, if you end up losing a contract, you will have to pay them anyway.
  4. Most likely you will get paid on a time schedule with different payouts for different benchmarks. When this happens, front load the payment so you don’t get stuck with big fabrication bills at the end.
  5. Title vs. copyright. Never sign your copyright off to the city. You own that! Remember Prince? He had to change his name to a symbol to get out of a copyright dispute.
  6. Site compliance. The city shall be responsible for all expenses, labor, and equipment to prepare the site for the timely transportation and installation of artwork.
  7. Insurance. Yes, you need it. You’ll primarily need liability insurance until your work is installed, and then it is the city’s responsibility.
  8. Where did you get that model? If you use an image of a person, place, etc.  in your work, make sure to get a release from them.
  9. Site credit. Don’t you hate it when you see an amazing piece of public art work but have no idea who did it? Make sure the city pays (not out of your budget) for a plaque or credit site near the work with your name on it.
  10. Budget. These budgets are the hardest. It takes a lot of time to put one together, but they are very important. Call around to fabricators to see the realistic cost for your project. If it’s out of scope, think about scaling down. Also, call a public art manager to see if they have any input.

There are many other ways to look at your public art contract. If you are nervous about confronting a city or other entity about the contract, keep in mind they have chosen you out of all the applicants, and are set on making the project work just as much as you are.

Make sure to check out the downloadable public art contract templates and resources, and let us know in the comments if you have any contract advice or horror stories to share.

Image: Ben Bunch

2 replies
  1. Jennifer Easton
    Jennifer Easton says:

    Hmmm, speaking as someone who has worked on both sides of the contract – I think assuming that city's are out to "screw" artists is a rather confrontational stance to begin with. Hopefully CLA didn't present as such. There is context to everything. City's think like City's – in how they "procure" what they want to own and how they want to own it. Can it be problematic for artists – sure, and that's why pointing out concerns as you have is a good thing.

    Point #1 is also a broad brushstroke that can be misleading. The 15-20% is typically for design fees – for some city's this includes all construction documentation, others not. Artists, if they are the fabricators of the artwork, are typically compensated for that time too, as well as some overhead for management during fabrication.

    Every commissioning agency is different, so every contract absolutely should be read carefully and concerns discussed – with the project manager and/or an attorney as appropriate. At the end of the day each artist has to decide what the commission is worth to them, and what issues are make/break. Yes, it's exciting to get a commission, yes it's important to negotiate for what you believe in, and yes, a commissioning agency can also draw a line in the sand.

    Thanks Danielle for writing this, I think it's very helpful to help artists new to the PA field, and I also think the more people think collaboratively and creatively – both from the commissioning side and the commissioned side, the whole project will go a lot more smoothly.

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