Artist Contracts: She Broke the Rules

Guest Blogger: Harriete Estel Berman
In her article Break the Rules, Alyson Stanfield said: “Don’t be afraid to break the rules, ignore the rules, or make up your own rules—especially when something isn’t working for you.”
Well Alyson is right and her comment hit home because of a recent experience. Let me explain.
I was invited to lecture at the Loveland Museum in Loveland, Colorado in conjunction with an exhibition including my work titled Integral Elements. The Museum offered to pay my travel expenses and a modest honorarium arranged through emails and phone calls months prior to the exhibition. We were all in agreement.

© 2000-01 Harriete Estel Berman, grass\’gras\ (detail). Over 32,400 individual blades of grass cut from pre-printed, recycled steel, 5.5" high x 9’ long x 9’ deep.

As the lecture date approached a contract arrived in the mail, NINE PAGES in small type. Yes, 9 pages plus a cover letter instructing me to return a signed copy! It was the standard contract from the City of Loveland, the governance structure within which the Museum operates. However, after several readings, I realized that only the first two paragraphs on the first page applied to my circumstances, along with a short addendum (of a few sentences) stapled to the back.
I won’t describe the whole contract, much of it too convoluted to comprehend. Among the many irrelevant items, some paragraphs required that I “certify compliance under penalty of perjury” with items or clauses referring to an array of Federal, State, and local regulations and ordinances. It even required that my signature be notarized—an expense I did not think was necessary.
What to do? It just seemed overwhelming partly because I did not understand it all. Ultimately, I could not bring myself to sign the contract. I decided it was time to “break the rules.”
I called up the City’s public art/business services manager and the museum staff. My lengthy voice messages said (in no uncertain terms, though with slightly quivering voice) that I could not sign the contract. Continuing . . . that the clauses in the contract were inappropriate and irrelevant, that I would not pay to have my signature notarized, and more!
However, I also made it clear that I would still come to the opening, give my lecture, and that they could decide to pay me or not. Of course, I wanted to be paid. And with or without a signed contract, I intended to fulfill my verbal agreement with the museum staff to give my lecture and participate in the programs. No contract was going to stop me from doing the best job that I could do.
The reality: I was the first person to make such a fuss!
The City personnel initially told me, “This is our standard contract. We’ve been using it for years and no one else has complained.” That was NOT a good answer. I still refused to sign, but continued plans to participate.
Guess what. Upon my arrival in Loveland, the museum staff told me that my protest finally changed the speaker contract. They had been trying but unable to change it for years. But the City attorneys had listened to me and responded!
The outcome: 1) My worry that the museum staff would be mad at me for refusing to sign the contract was unfounded; 2) The City attorneys drafted a replacement one-page contract; 3) The museum staff was quite grateful to have a new simple contract more suited to their needs; and, best of all 4) We are all happy! Win-win-win.
Next time you run into a difficult situation, don’t be afraid to take action and be the “maverick.” Use your best judgment along with carefully justified reasoning to determine your course. And always live up to your agreements while continuing to communicate all the way.

Harriete Estel Berman is an artist living in California. She is known for using recycled metal in her sculptures that are often charged with social commentary and, simultaneously, filled with humor.
She is also the author of the Professional Guidelines for Artists and the blog askHarriete. If you're near Houston or CAN be near Houston, Harriete encourages you to check out the Professional Development Seminar on March 10, 2010. It's organized by the Society of North American Goldsmiths, but is open to artists in all media.

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15 thoughts on “Artist Contracts: She Broke the Rules”

  1. Congrats on drawing your guns, sticking to them, and your ultimate victory! You’ve helped change the world (at least one small part of it) for the better. I’m sure that all who come after you will be greatful!

  2. Nice! Every heard the song Troublemaker by Weezer? That’s so you.
    So much of what happens in life happens just by asking for it. Asking for the sale, asking the girl to marry you, asking for the audition, asking to speak…way to go.

  3. Ooh, government contracts are such a sticky thing. And their response was unfortunately quite typical. Good for you for not signing it! Sometimes it takes a squeaky wheel from the outside to get things changed. It’s nice to hear that you found a way to still do the right thing & it paid off!

  4. Hooray! Good work. 🙂 And you’ve improved the experience for every speaker to follow you!
    I’ve questioned contracts too, with Alyson’s advice ringing in my head. The lesson I think is that we assume the other party will resist, when really we’re equal parties to the agreement. Once I negotiated payment terms (to 30 days instead of 90 days, yikes!), and another time I negotiated the commission when a lower offer for a painting was made. Both times the gallery/venue was happy to consider the changes saying they really just had a very general contract or terms and hadn’t thought about other situations, or they just hadn’t come up before.
    Go artists! 🙂

  5. Yes. Read the contract and be willing to walk if you can’t sign it. I refused to sign a contract for an adjunct teaching job when I realized that it gave the school the rights to all the notes I might use (even old ones used in more than 30 years of teaching) and to any demos which I might do to explain a process and which I might later complete. It was a harangue with meetings from HR to college president to state’s attorney, but finally one line was deleted from my contract which made it acceptable to me, but I had to read carefully each term to be sure it wasn’t reinserted (sometimes it was.) Most folks in humanities there just kept intellectual property VERY separate.

  6. I wonder how many people said nothing because they didn’t, in fact, read the contract. Another add on to being an indepenent artist, but also good advice for life: Read everything, every contract and all the fine print, before you sign!

  7. Hurray for you! I read everything before I sign and I complain about contracts a lot! And it always sickens me when I hear “We’ve been using this contract for years and no one else has complained”. So? Does that somehow make the contract good?
    I’m glad you stood up and that someone listened!

  8. I was given a contract for the space at a show that said I would be taking out $1 million in insurance – and that the company owning the space would be the beneficiaries, should anything happen!
    When I asked about it, I was told I didn’t really have to have insurance. So why should I sign a legal document saying I would? I crossed out everything I didn’t agree to, and initialed it, and made other alterations, and then signed it.

  9. I think the successful outcome of this challenge is so heartening; and I especially love how Harriette was willing to honor her “contract” with the museum regardless of the what came of the “official” contract. Went to look at the videos; LOVED them! What neat stuff and great underlying messages!

  10. Jacqueline: Yes, their response was typical, but then they did something atypical: They changed it! Shows that government can be responsive.
    Tina: Proof that it doesn’t hurt to ask.
    Annette & Karen: Those contracts sound unbelievable. So glad you were alert.

  11. All businesses (and individuals) should note that just because one person complains when others have not does not devalue the complaint. Most people are lazy and do not follow-through. Anyone who CARES enough to give us feedback of any sort is a VALUABLE asset!
    I suspect in this case, there was a stronger obligation than normal because dates were already agreed upon and so much had already been invested. Yes, you have something to lose in that case, but you already have a RELATIONSHIP established and value yourself enough to know that when commitments have been made, it is ALSO in the other party’s best interest to alter a “small” thing in order to keep the big picture flowing smoothly. And in this case (as in most, I suspect), future cases. By letting the other party know that the relationship/event would not be let down (other than by willing to hurt yourself by accepting no pay), the other party did not need to waste energy on being defensive and actually became a party on your side. Brava!

  12. mary anne enriquez

    Absolutely inspiring to read Harriete. I would have been way too scared. I would have been confused by all the legalese, and the 9 pages. The situation would most likely not turned out as positively as yours did.
    Congratulations on a great victory.

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