I am a freelance artist and a museum refuses to pay me for work I completed, what can I do?

I worked for a well known museum (out of state) on an art instillation, in which I created all of the pieces to be on display. There was no written agreement, only verbal. I was 2 days late in delivering some of the pieces, and now they won’t pay me. They offered to give me 54% of the total they owe me but that seems unfair.

Asked on July 17, 2012 under Employment Labor Law, New York


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 8 years ago | Contributor

An oral (or verbal) agreement is enforceable. A material, or important, breach by you (such as missing a deadline, if the deadline was critical--e.g. related to when they would start exhibiting) could allow the museum to terminate the agreement and not pay--but if they accepted the pieces, the most they should be able to do for your breach would usually be to seek to recover from you any direct costs or losses they incurred from your breach (the delay). For example, say that because the pieces were late, they had to pay staff overtime to install them; they could theoretically look to set off the cost of the overtime versus what they agreed to pay you.

Therefore, depending on the circumstances (i.e. how significant the delay was; costs or losses from the delay), you may be able to seek to enforce the agreement for up to the full amount of the agreed-upon amount. However, to do so, you'd have to sue the museum, which is always trickier and often more expensive with an out-of-state entity. You need to weigh the cost of litigation versus what you hope to recover (the other 46%) to see if it is worthwhile.

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