Why Contracts and Legal Documents are so Important for Artists

By Aletta de Wal in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

In my time as an art career coach, I’ve found that all too many artists ignore the need for legal documents and contracts in their business.

After all, you can sell your art on the strength of a handshake or write down a commission agreement on a napkin. . . but there really does come a time when well-written contracts are a necessity.

For instance, if you’ve started to exhibit your work beyond your studio, or you’re considering marketing your art in places owned by others (or online) you’ll want to understand what consignment is, who’s responsible for shipping, etc. These should all be found in your contract with the other party.

A contract, of course, is simply a document that lists the mutual understanding and promises between two people. Good contracts anticipate (and therefore avoid) unwanted outcomes for either side, and create clear road maps to the desired results from the business relationship.

Just as good fences make good neighbors, good contracts make good business partners.

Now I’m not saying that legal documents will completely protect you from everything (since agreements are only as good as the relationships they describe) but I do believe that working out agreements so that both parties feel good about signing is a good way to build trust.

In addition, when you negotiate and write up a business contract with someone, you:

• Acknowledge and legally document the value of your work

• Protect ownership of your work and rights in public

• Avoid legal hassles (for example, when incorporating the work of others)

• Give yourself more opportunities for compensation (i.e., through licensing)

• Increase your understanding of your business relationships.

In any business relationship you have, your contract will document what you want and how you can meet your business partner’s requirements.

Whether you decide on a simple letter of agreement or a multi-page document, paperwork puts people on notice that you know and will protect your rights as an artist, and that you will respect their rights as a buyer or business partner.

(And no, you don’t need to go to law school for this. There are plenty of books and blogs that walk you through basic legal practices for artists.)

If you must use a lawyer, do so before the situation becomes desperate. It’s prudent to have your lawyer review every legally binding document you get, no matter how simple it looks to you, until you are able to recognize the good ones from the bad ones. This will save you time, grief and money.

If you do not know any lawyers, it is time to start the search.

Hire a lawyer in the state in which you are doing business, since he or she will be familiar with your state’s local laws. You may want to contact the local bar association to be referred to a lawyer who is most knowledgeable in the area of your concern.

There are also nationwide branches of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Look for them in the largest city near you.

Good luck, and be careful!


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