A Commission Process that Failed

May 10, 2007


Detail of a CuadroThe preliminary call for a large installation commission was tantalizing.  The space was one of great proportion, the site was interesting.  But it was the vision of the leadership for the mission of the church that left me convinced that this would be something that I could respond to with the passion and leadership to sustain the hard work of creating this work of art.

In the first interview, I was asked what my process of working was.  I outlined a careful process that over the years I have learned works well for me and for my clients.  It involves as much committee work as possible to define the purpose intended from the art, directions that they want me to consider, and a range of budget for the project.  This part does not involve images; that is my work.

I explained also that for large projects like this one, I divided the work into three stages, and that each stage was complete within itself:

»  The first is to do a design proposal, budgets, drawings, materials lists, all the work to complete the project by anyone at this stage.  That part takes two months from the time of their committee direction completion.  This design phase included a fee upon completion.

»  The second phase, upon approval of the design, is frabrication.  This is the bulk of time and budget, and this project needed seven months to do this work.  Fees are paid as material and time costs are accrued.

»  The last part is installation, which is done the week prior to its function.  Payment is due at the completion of the installation.

I asked about their timeline, which left me a year from the phone call until completion, a gracious time in which to design the work, allow for revisions of design, fabricate it, and install it.  I summarized my understanding of the conversation in a detailed e-mail.  I was told they would be meeting about this within the next two weeks and would get back to me at that time.

My mistake at this point was not being clear about their process of commissioning.  I did not have any idea whether they wanted me to come up with a proposal or would work with my own process.

The process stalled here.  I would write about every two weeks and ask about their progress.  Their meetings were postponed repeatedly.  In the meantime, a very good design formed itself without them.  I finally shared it with them, and it was met with lots of enthusiasm.  The project was then transferred to a more appropriate department, and finally things looked like work was beginning.

I found the idea of a design that was not approved very difficult.  It was hard to sustain my interest without working out the images through experimentation and models.  I needed to explore material sources.  Yet without a budget for my time, no dimensions or clear floor plan and other architectural details available to me, or any idea about how extensively I could plan, I had to delay working on this piece, and yet keep my enthusiasm from dying.  Tension from this kept me from my own work, also, putting me at a serious disadvantage.

Four months later, I was asked to submit a dream budget based on the unapproved design.  This budget was not only for the artwork itself, but also for my travel, hospitality, in fact, for all the expenses that this project might bring.  This budget was to be done without any fee for my time.  A second phase, the creation of eight banners was added, with a simple budget attached.

I slowly understood that nothing of my usual process would be utilized.  This left me thinking that I had not been heard, and further, that their process would not be disclosed until they needed me to know some aspect of the work.  I did the budget, and again, there was such a long delay that I could not complete the work in their original timeframe.  Reluctantly, that deadline was modified.

Six months after the initial phone call, the budget was approved, but I did not have a theme for the banners, and having learning from my earlier process, I submitted two design directions for their consideration.  The meetings to decide this choice were again postponed, leaving five months to complete this part of the work.

Commitments to decisions were growing increasingly impossible to complete.  No one could make choices I needed them to make before I could begin in order to complete the work in time.

It took me another week of agonizing.  I wanted to do this work, but I could not work within their process.  With counsel from trusted friends, prayer, and soul searching, I sent a letter of resignation.  I had received no money for my time, a sense of six months of wasted energy, but most of all I had deep grief for the images that would never be now, that I knew would have been magnificent.

I believe that no ill will was intended.  However, I could have recognized the signs of a failed commission much earlier and moved on.  It would have served me well.

What went wrong and what can be learned:

»    In the beginning, both parties need to share their processes.  This did not happen.

»    The project needed to be assigned to the correct department, and a contact person clearly assigned to the project.

»    Deadlines were not met by the clients.  There was no attempt on their part to communicate their needs for revision of dates.

»    My time spent was not paid for.

»    My needs for design and fabrication time were not honored in a timely way.

»    The time between the rise of ideas and their approval of the ideas was too great a gap to sustain the energy to complete the work.

Nancy Chinn is a multimedia artist in Little River, CA and the author of Spaces for Spirit: Adorning the Church (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998; ISBN-10: 1568542429; ISBN-13: 978-1568542423) and co-author of Wisdom Searches: Seeking the Feminine Presence of God (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1999; ISBN-10: 0829813381; ISBN-13: 978-0829813388).

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