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.
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.