Contracts and agreements play a major role in the administrative side of working as an artist. To help you through the process, we’ve put together this guide outlining some common ones, as well as useful resources.
There are several types of contracts that come into play for artists working professionally — whether in the context of gallery representation, receiving commissions or funding, selling an artwork, or loaning work for a temporary exhibition.
Even if you know and trust the organization or person you will be working with or entering into a professional arrangement with, it’s important to lay out all expectations and responsibilities in a clear and detailed manner in writing. Doing this not only provides clarity for all parties involved; it also helps to protect their interests by ensuring accountability. As an artist, this could mean a guarantee of compensation and payment in a timely manner, as well as proper care, display and handling of your artwork.
Of course, this process will likely require time and research to sort through, and perhaps a bit of negotiation. To help you out, we’ve compiled an overview of common types of contracts, what they might entail, and tips for seeking advice on a budget.
Types of Contracts
Contracts are legally binding documents that specify mutually agreed-upon terms and conditions, expected outcomes and requirements of the parties involved in a professional engagement. They are important for all parties, because unforeseen circumstances may arise, misunderstandings can occur, or terms and fees might otherwise be suddenly changed without notice.
As an artist, it’s important to have your bases covered when entering into a situation where you are expected to provide artwork to a client, gallery, institution, etc. Berufsverband bildender künstler*innen berlin (bbk), for instance, recommends that visual artists require a contract when participating in an exhibition.
In general, artist contracts can take a number of different forms depending on the specific situation. But there are also some key sections and details that are common across different types of contracts: including full and complete details of an artwork or proposal; artwork copyright and documentation permissions; time frame of the agreement, important stages and key dates; governing law under which the agreement is enforced; and procedures for dispute resolution and termination.
Here is a breakdown of (some) common types of contracts and agreements that you may encounter in the course of your artistic career.
If you receive a grant from a funding body or organization to carry out a proposed project, you will likely have to fill in and sign a grant agreement before getting started.
This agreement essentially acts to specificy the obligations and expected outcomes for the grant recipient and the grant provider, often confirming and elaborating on what was initially laid out in the grant application. Important details of the project, scope, and conditions are covered, including:
- The amount of the grant and schedule of payment.
- Duration of the grant and when work must be completed by. This may also include an outline of certain milestones or phases of the project, when each is to be carried out and whether this coincides with payment installments.
- Requirements: which may include submission of a final report by the grant recipient, for example.
- The type of expenses that funds may and may not be applied to.
- And proper crediting and acknowledgement of the support of the funding institution wherever the project is publicized.
A loan agreement is a contract between an exhibiting institution and the owner or artist of the work(s) to be borrowed for temporary display.
In addition to covering the basic details of the artworks that are being loaned and the contact details of both parties, loan agreements typically also outline the following essential information:
- Dates of the loan period: usually begins slightly before the opening of the exhibition and extends slightly beyond the closing date to account for transport and installation.
- Who is responsible for insurance (often the Borrower)? When does coverage begin and end, and what is covered? If the borrowing institution is insuring the work while on premises, does this coverage also extend to the work’s transport?
- The insurance value of each work of art (as provided by the Lender).
- Address where the work should be picked up and returned.
- Condition reporting procedures.
- The credit line for labels and promotional material.
- Costs and responsibilities like installation and shipping. Any special requirements for display or installation are usually outlined here as well.
- If the artist will be paid a fee in exchange for exhibition of the artwork, this will also be detailed, along with the schedule of payment.
In some cases, a loan agreement may also take the form of a consignment agreement (more on that below), particularly if a work is being loaned to a commercial gallery for exhibition — where a sale might be facilitated by the organizing institution.
A consignment agreement is a contract between an artist and gallery, in which the artist — sometimes similar to a loan — provides the gallery with artwork, often for a fixed period of time. Under a consignment agreement, the work is typically provided by the artist free of charge. And if the gallery sells the work while on consignment, they receive a commission on the sale (generally around 50%). If the work is not sold within a certain time frame, it will likely be returned to the artist. Such agreements between artist and gallery may be made on a one-off, temporary basis or as a more long-term arrangement.
Important details of a consignment agreement generally include:
- Length of consignment period.
- Percentage of gallery commission on sales.
- Price of artwork and its determination: i.e., who will set the price and who has negotiating power? Is the gallery given the right to allow a discount up to a certain amount at their discretion — without the artist’s approval? And if a discount is provided, which party will incur it? Is it shared or split evenly?
- Exclusivity: if the agreement grants exclusivity to the gallery, this means the artist may be restricted from conducting sales on artwork independently or contracting with another gallery. Furthermore, in some cases, the gallery may be given the right of first refusal of new artworks created during a specified period of time.
- Expenses: Does the artwork require framing or other specifications for display, for example? Who is responsible for these expenses, as well as those associated with transport, maintenance, etc.
- Insurance: Will the gallery insure the work while on consignment? And if so, what is covered, for how long, and at what value?
- Promotion: is the artist expected to provide images, information and/or promotional material to the gallery, and by when must it be provided? Will the work be exhibited at the gallery, and if so what are the exhibition dates, or how frequently will the work be exhibited?
- And importantly, the title of ownership and copyright of consigned artwork: i.e., both are retained by the artist.
A commission agreement is based on an arrangement between artist and client, in which the artist has been hired to create new artwork. A commission agreement will generally include any special requirements of the project as laid out by the client and/or artist, and a formal timeline for completion, including any milestones/phases, progress reports, or revision rounds, as well as:
- Proposal: step-by-step plan detailing the process of creation, stages of work, and what it entails.
- Payment and installments: the agreed-upon price of the commission, what it covers, as well as when and how it will be paid to the artist. For example, it is typical that the artist receives fifty percent upon entering the agreement and fifty percent when the project is complete.
- Title: defines ownership and copyright of the work after completion.
- Kill fee: specifies the terms of payment if the project is cancelled before completion.
A termination clause, which may include a kill fee, is an important part of any form of agreement, as it lays out the process for cancelling the contract: under which circumstances it may be cancelled, how much notice must be given, who bears costs already incurred, etc. The Covid-19 pandemic, in particular, has emphasized the importance of having coverage and options in the event of unexpected cancellation.
Contracts can take time, research and negotiation. Here are some tips and resources for getting advice and assistance on contractual matters — which, as a general rule, should be sought before finalizing an important contract/agreement.
Ideally, always have a lawyer draft or review contracts before finalizing and signing, especially when entering into a long-term arrangement. Of course, this might not always be an accessible option, considering the cost of legal fees, etc. However, there may be options available to you for getting legal advice on a budget.
There are organizations that provide pro bono or voluntary legal services for art-related issues, including drafting, reviewing and negotiating contracts. Such services might not necessarily be free — as there might be associated membership fees or administrative costs, depending on the organization. But these are likely to be low-cost options.
Advisory Services for Artists
Arts Law, for example, is an independent community legal center for the arts in Australia. By submitting a query form online, Australian artists and arts organizations can request legal advice from the center, which is provided free or at low cost based on need and eligibility.
New York-based Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA) is another non-profit organization, which provides arts-related legal assistance to low-income artists operating in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut. VLA operates on a membership basis, with fees used to cover administrative costs. The organization can also facilitate long-term representation for its members, via its extensive network of lawyers, who volunteer their services on a pro bono basis.
Operating on an even more local level, there are also professional associations, such as bbk berlin, which includes expert legal advice among its roster of services for its members. A consultation can be arranged by contacting the office. The bbk advisory service, including legal advice, is free of charge for all members of the bbk berlin. However, professional visual artists who are non-members may also contact the office for urgent matters.
Some universities may also provide pro bono services to the local creative community via their law department. Maastricht University, for example, runs the Indie Art Legal Clinic, which provides advice on intellectual property-specific issues through teams of master and bachelor students, under the guidance of faculty members and experienced lawyers.
Keep in mind that such organizations and services are usually non-profit and receive many inquiries; meaning, the process may take some time and require an appointment in advance — especially when seeking services from an organization that operates on a national scale.
Courses and Workshops
Courses and workshops can offer valuable knowledge and hands-on experience in navigating legal documents, with the guidance of an experienced lawyer.
Some of the organizations mentioned above may also offer workshops and classes on arts-related legal topics, including drafting contracts. VLA has offered a course on drafting contracts specifically in the context of coronavirus, with a focus on options the parties may have if contract obligations cannot be fulfilled. A recording of the course is available on demand via their website, alongside recordings of other previous courses on various topics, and a calendar where upcoming events are posted.
The Artist’s Office is an artist-run organization based in Los Angeles, which also runs occasional workshops addressing various administrative and business-related topics, including contracts for artists. The most recent virtual workshop addressed existing legal frameworks and current needs in terms of artist’s rights once their work has been sold. It was open to participants on a sliding payment scale — making it accessible to low-income artists.
Often, an institution, organization or gallery will have its own template for agreements and will provide the artist with a contract to be reviewed and signed. On the other hand, if you are commissioned for a private artwork, for example, you might need to draw up and provide your own contract. Though it is not advisable to forgo legal advice entirely, there are also templates you can use or refer to for guidance in the process of drafting a contract.
In addition to its legal services, Arts Law also has a searchable bank of sample agreements available for purchase on its website. To provide further assistance to low-income artists and organizations in the process of drafting contracts, their sample agreements not only include sample wording for each clause, but explanatory notes as well.
There are also websites that provide free legal documents and templates for a variety of contract types. While not art specific, Docracy features open legal documents that can be downloaded or adapted and sent for signing, for example. Similarly, Upcounsel features legal articles and free documents for download.