Artists and their Inheritors Should Get Paid Forever
proposing a new standard of payment and a contract for “commissions in perpetuity”
Mar 25, 2007
Even though I’m not an artist, I feel a strong affinity for those who try to make a living by painting or drawing or sculpting. My mother, Polly Kapteyn Brown, was a Maine artist and art teacher who specialized in abstract art in acrylic. She passed away in 1983, and never found much commercial success with her art, as many artists experience. Our four children study art three times a week in their home school, focused on classical drawing. They all seem to love art, which makes my wife and I very happy. The walls of our home are covered with fine art posters that we’ve picked up over the years, and we try to visit museums as often as we can.
Art brings so many people joy, and yet as an occupation it seems to me that artists in general are not adequately compensated for their work. When they sell their work, whether for a high or low price, it is true that they’ve gotten paid. If they’re very lucky, they’ll be able to support themselves from ongoing sales of new work. Any trade has risks, so I’m not suggesting art subsidies for artists who may not be very good (although I’m strongly in favor of renewing the patron system). My concern is with the resale of an artist’s work.
To me, it just seems wrong that the original artist doesn’t profit when a painting is resold over and over again, all the while going up in price. It must be particularly galling for a living artist to watch his or her paintings fetch astronomical prices years after the artist sold them for a much smaller sum. I don’t know if a study has been done on this, but I wonder how many artists throughout history struggled to pay the bills while their earlier art was enriching investors and collectors.
I would like to propose that from now on, artists sell their work with a contract attached that creates a “commission in perpetuity” for the original artist and the artist’s inheritors. It’s a simple idea, and technically easy to carry out. Whether buyers will agree is an unknown, but I think it’s worth the attempt. The percentage listed below is an initial proposal, but one that I believe is fair. The contract below should probably be modified by a lawyer to be in better legalese, since I’m not a lawyer and am thus not giving legal advice. The contract would state:
Artist’s Commission in Perpetuity
The above contract may seem unusual, to say the least. Yet, why shouldn’t artists and their inheritors profit from the sometimes gigantic sums paid for the artist’s work, long after the original sale? As a society, we’re grateful (usually) for the existence of beautiful and fine art. Let’s help artists in their work by encouraging them to adopt some form of the above contract as a new standard - a “commission in perpetuity”, or perpetual royalty.
To all the artists out there: don’t wait for this standard to evolve! I recommend that you adopt the above contract with your very next sale. To all the owners of works of art that are selling their works for gigantic (or small) profits: why not adopt the above contract so that the living artists or their inheritors can benefit from the ongoing profits from the sale of their art? It’s an “outrageously moral” thing to do. May God bless artists and the world of art!
As a disclaimer, I’d like to say that my proposal has nothing to do with my mother’s art or its resale. I have no personal ax to grind and am not a “disgruntled inheritor”.
Peter Falkenberg Brown is passionate about writing, publishing, public speaking and film. He hopes that someday he can live up to his favorite motto: “Expressing God’s kind and compassionate love in all directions, every second of every day, creates an infinitely expanding sphere of heart.”
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