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February 8, 2012

I had a curious and somewhat short-winded conversation just now over lunch with a professor of mine at Stanford who is a prominent patron of the arts and teaches a class on the management of non-profit organizations at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

We were discussing patronage of the arts -- that is, patronage in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Y'know, the rich and powerful individuals in days of yore like the Medicis, the Duke of York and the heads of the Catholic Church who would back artists like Shakespeare and Michelangelo as a means of showing off their wealth and political acumen.

These days, the work of sponsoring the arts has fallen largely to charitable foundations, and it strikes me that there's less of a direct link between patron and artist than there used to be, with foundation middlemen performing detailed processes in order to ascertain how to spend a collection of rich individuals' money or the money of an specific family or individual.

The professor pointed out an obvious point: That the nonexistence of the old style of patronage in this country is due for the most part to the fact that givers can only get tax breaks by sponsoring non-profit organizations rather than individual artists.

I'm not advocating for the old system, where not paying proper homage to a patron could get an artist cut off, jailed or worse. But for some strange reason, I do feel a vague nostalgia for the old way. All those odes written in honor of haughty Queens; and all the frescoed saints with more than a passing resemblance to the people who carried the purse strings.

The contract between artist and patron was much more explicit in Renaissance times. These days, the relationship seems quite faceless and corporate. Which in many ways, I suppose, is a good thing. Thank goodness that poets don't feel the need to write odes about the program officers at the Hewlett Foundation.

Finally: Does anyone out there know of any good books on the history of arts patronage? I'd love to read something excellent on the subject.


  • Really good chapter in Pleasures of the Imagination: English culture in the c18th by John Brewer. He has the image of the patron as the creative force, with the artist as the tradesman executing it...

    By Anonymous William Higham, At February 9, 2012 at 4:59 AM  

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