Briefs and contracts for public art commissions

A commission will lead to a contract for you, as an artist, to create something to a specified brief. That brief is set by the commissioner and can be very loose or very specific. While this article does focus on a public art brief, or at least a brief that involves some kind of public engagement, many of its principles can be transferred onto other types of commission.

A Commissioner will

  • Create an opportunity for an artist to produce something new AND specific which will be detailed in the brief
  • Will agree with the artist that they can deliver the brief
  • Will agree to work in collaboration with the artist
  • Provide an opportunity to bring criticality to an artist’s practice

A commission for an Artist provides the following

  • An opportunity to develop and realise an idea
  • A paid job
  • An opportunity to situate work in the public realm, with different communities and audiences
  • An agreement to work in collaboration and partnership with the commissioner from conception to completion
  • An agreement to work within the budget and timeline

When undertaking your first commission, it is also important to remember that every commission is different and specific and it is a process to be learnt through experience.

Tip:  Keep a diary or notebook of your first commission and write down anything that does not go according to plan, so that you can learn for the next time.

What is a brief?

The brief will be set by the commissioner.  Depending on the project, the brief maybe flexible or can be developed together.  This is something that should be discussed with the commissioner at the start of the process.

Elements that should be detailed in any brief to an artist

  • The overall vision, aims and objectives
  • Context – history, background to project
  • Information on the commissioner
  • Physical or technical constraints
  • Role of the artist – scope of what you will need to deliver
  • Project management structure
  • Copyright and ownership
  • Budget – what is and isn’t included
  • Time frame with key dates
  • List of what the artist needs to deliver – often you will have to provide a detailed budget, initial drawings/designs, and documentation to the commissioner as well as delivering the work or project

At this point in the process, the difference between a brief and a contract can be confusing:

Brief = what the commissioner wants from the project

Contract = what the artist and commissioner have agreed to deliver


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