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Designing for a museum

Hello all,

I’m doing this very late and backwards, but here’s my brief intro
(after many of you have already had the courtesy to answer the
questions of a complete stranger :). I have a production line, mostly
silver, some gold that I wholesale, mostly to higher end craft
galleries, museum stores and the like. I’m a one person studio, doing
this full time for the past eight years. If you want to see some
work, go to The site currently has older work on
it but I’m hoping to use it to refer stores to see new work.

I need some help from this wide pool of knowledge and experience with
my latest project. I sell to a Museum in downtown NY and the store
manager has approached me with the idea of my designing and producing
some work exclusively for the museum. I would be using mostly the
museum’s photo archives for design ideas for earrings, maybe pins and
other stuff. What I haven’t been able to find much info on is how
best to approach this. The museum hasn’t given me a budget to work
with so far (I’ve asked) and it seems they generally work on the
premise that the work is submitted in its finished state and THEN
passes through to the committee for final approval or changes to the
design are made then. Sort of backwards from how I would do it.

I can understand the exclusitivity rights the museum wants for
designs specifically and only for them but I’d like to protect my
interests also by asking that they order a certain dollar amount each
year (but how much?) and that I am the sole producer of the designs
and work unless they ask my permission first. They can also ask to
buy the designs outright but how would that work and how do I figure
out the worth of the design? How do I begin to charge even for the
prototype they want to see or is that just included in the final
balance? I want to ask for a deposit initially at the meeting but if
it’s refused because “that’s not the way things are done here”, then
what options would I have?

I think this is the museum’s first foray into something like this and
I know that it’s definitely mine. I’m sure there are other things
that I haven’t considered or thought of yet. Please advise if you can
on how to best enter into this contract. The meeting is Sept. 5 and I
want to go in with a contract to start with which will hopefully have
all the answers to the questions above and more.

Thank you.


Leda…how about contacting other museums and asking how they
proceed. Im sure with a bit of humility, persistence and charm you
could answer most of your questions… Let us know how it actually
works and what you outcome is.


Lee, We designed a line and sold it to museum stores.The way most
stores we dealt with did it and this included the Smithsonian and
Discovery Channel stores and many more.Most museum stores have
managers that act as buyers or in the case of Disney and Discovery
they have many buyers.Jewelry,T-shirts etc.We put together sample
packs of our line this included a few pieces and price sheets and
about the line.Some of the buyers stated up front that
they do not return samples.Others asked for return packaging.None of
them offered to buy samples.Many of the buyers take your samples and
end up taking them home.If you are working in gold and expensive
stones I would make my sample line in brass and plate it. Many
jewelers use this technique to display their samples at shows.If you
are working in silver and the pieces are not expensive then consider
the piece a sales tool.You will get it back in orders.We paid a lawyer
to file copyright apps for us on our pieces.You can do it yourself and
always put your logo and copyright symbol and year on your pieces if
you want to protect them at a later date Our lawyer told us people
want to knock a piece off they can do so easily.Especially if it is
taken overseas.You have to file separately for each country and unless
you are a David Yurman with tons of lawyers,time and money it is very
hard to stop them.If you are copying pieces for the museum at their
request that is a whole different ball of wax.Most of the beautiful
objects that museums have in their possession they own and they also
own the rights to those objects.You are not supposed to use the Mona
Lisa on say t shirts to make a profit.That does not mean people
don’t.You can’t walk into the art institute in Chicago and photograph
a Picasso to turn into post cards.So my UN lawyered guess is that even
though you are making the product for the museum they will have
retained the rights to those pieces.Now if you are using a portion of
the piece from the museum and incorporating that into your design Such
as putting King Tut driving a Volkswagen beetle sterling silver
pin.You designed the pin but only used King Tuts head in the window of
the car.I would say design the line offer the sample pieces to the
committee and tell the store manager you want your pieces back.Then
you wait for them to make their decision and keep in communication
with them calling frequently.It sometimes takes weeks or months to get
your line through and in the interim many of the buyers or store
managers go to other museums.There is also a Museum Store trade show
once a year in May you might try setting up a booth and showing your
wares there.Hope this helps Regards J Morley Coyote Ridge Studio

Leda, Any agreement between two parties has to be a "win/win"
situation. I would make a list of my requirements, concerns, etc.,
then prioritize my list. If you are expected to make prototypes on
spec. they need to give you something in return for your time and out
of pocket expenses. Whatever the results of your negotiations, if you
agree to proceed, it needs to be in the form of a contract. If they
prepare a contract it is worth the cost to have a business lawyer
review it for you before you sign it.

Good luck.

Joel Schwalb


I will give you my take on this. If what you say is completely
accurate, they have asked you to produce a design that will be yours
(you own it) but to be manufactured exclusively for them. You can
probably gage from your dealings with them what kind of budget and
mindset they have. Some museums, such as the Met, are loaded with
money, their Boards are often talking in the millions for
acquisitions, but other small museums may have another mindset. They
may also treat the “small business” of the sales shop like a
business. Maybe the people you deal with in the shop will help you
figure out how to deal with the Board.

At any rate, I think it would be fair to charge your usual rates for
the design and/or prototype. If you have to, you might reduce this a
little if you have to, on the strength of future sales (something
like on spec), but I would be reluctant to cheapen my contribution by
doing so. A written report with your design and model explaining its
features and quality would help the Museum decide to use you. i
would think that these shops are selling quality and maybe even the
idea that the jewelry is a replica produced aomwhat like the
original, in the same materials, with the same techniques, etc. You
might find your “report” becoming the catalog blurb.

I don’t think you can expect to pin down a certain promised amount of
sales per year, that depends on the fickle market and the worth of
what you give them. I do think a Museum ought to understand
intellectual property rights and honor the designer the way they
would honor the artists exhibited. I would think that they have
Museum members and a good audience at the Museum, so this should be a
good deal for you over the long term. I would just get my design
fees and fabrication fees up front for the model and take it from
there. If there is a possibility that anything from your design will
be produced by someone else, the Museum needs to get an agreement
from these people that they won’t knock off your design and that
needs to be a part of the agreement.

That’s just my two cents, Roy

Coming from a commercial art perspective, any commission work should
include both a prepayment- non-refundable- that covers the design
work you do initially, AND a basic agreement that specifies each
party’s rights and responsibilities. You can find prototype
agreements of this nature in books like “Business and Legal Forms for
Graphic Designers,” since that’s an area where prototyping etc. is
common practice. I also use “Legal Guide for the Visual Artist.”

If you’re doing work at someone else’s request, they should pay for
your time and effort (and materials). You retain rights to the work
until they buy them from you. The approval process should be
specified. Then, when there’s a design they like, you negotiate the
fulfillment contract, whether that’s you doing the work, you selling
them the design and rights to have others reproduce it, royalties, or
whatever combination meets both your needs. If you never agree on a
design, but you like the one(s) you’ve come up with, you should be
able to make 'em and sell them.

This is assuming that you’re doing work “inspired” by the museum’s
pieces. If they want copies, you need more up front, since you have
fewer options about using your work yourself if they don’t go for it.

I really recommend involving clients in the design process. They
usually want to have you complete the work, then decide if they want
it (and if they’ll pay for it), but that leaves you pretty
vulnerable. If they’re involved, like needing to approve sketches
before you make prototypes, a lot less time, effort, and materials
are wasted and the process is more fun and pleasant for everyone. If
they’ve never done this before, their preferences aren’t writ in
stone, and they should be amenable to you telling them, That’s not
how I can do that.

Good luck! Your work’s lovely, BTW!
-Amanda Fisher