At Meural, we're driven by art democratization and transparency—and so we've developed a series at the intersection of art and commerce. Each installment provides an objective, accessible debriefing of a financial aspect of the art industry. Read more about the series' objective and what's to come.

Basquiat in his studio, courtesy of ThingLink

by Elinor Case-Pethica

Financial backing has always represented a crucial role in the production of art. Art patrons are figures who support and enable the work of artists through the donation of money or resources. The meaning of patronage has changed a great deal over the long history of art, and continues to change today at increasingly rapid rates. 

Perhaps the most famous and influential art patrons of western art were the Medicis of Florence. As the most powerful and wealthy family in the 15th century, their patronage enabled some of the most celebrated art of the renaissance period. They acted as patrons to Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Raphael. The family supported the artists throughout their careers, and commissioned such major artworks as The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. They set the model for artistic patronage—going so far as to invite young artists to live in their grand palazzo home in Florence to study from the collection of classical sculpture housed there. The generosity and support of the Medici family allowed talented emerging artists of the day to achieve their full potential and enter the canon as some of the artistic geniuses of the Renaissance.

The Met, courtesy of The Huffington Post

The Medici model is one that has been fractured in the modern day into several types of patronage. Perhaps the most accessible and common type is patronage via donation to museums and art foundations—the names of these museum patrons listed on the entrance walls of institutions have become a standard and familiar sight. Some concern has been expressed as of late however, about the shifting climate of charitable donations to such institutions. Baby boomers control 70% of the nation’s disposable income, and the rising generation of millennials do not yet have the same level of spending power. The shrinking middle class means fewer people with the wealth required for major philanthropic involvement. This combined with a shifting cultural focus towards socially focused charitable giving rather than artistic donation, means museums and non-profit institutions are receiving less and less money. Patrons of today, particularly those engaging in financial donation as their form of patronage, are increasingly eager to understand where exactly their money goes. Previous generations were satisfied with donating to bolster an institution’s endowment, but younger patrons look for specific measures of how their donations are being used. 

These museum patrons may at times feel as though their contributions are disappearing into a haze of institutional bureaucracy. One way modern patrons are able to take a more direct approach to supporting artistic talent is through the formation of grants and residencies. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, offers grants to three artists each year a living stipend and working space at the Bellagio Center in New York. The American Academy in Rome is another, similar grant. The aim of these programs and others like them is to alleviate financial and practical stresses from artists lives as they work. By removing the pressure to create pieces for immediate sale, patrons give artists freedom to create more complex, challenging, and risky work.

Untitled (1981) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, created in Annina Nosei's gallery basement, courtesy of The Spokesman-Review

In 15th century Florence during the time of the Medici, the common mode of artistic production was through commission. A buyer would approach an artist to create a work for them, and would pay for it to be produced. Commissions still exist today, but it is far more common practice for production and sale to be separate; the work is created and then subsequently a buyer is found. Another way modern patrons are able to recreate this quotidian financial security for their artists is through artist-in-residency arrangements, providing them with both a working/living space, and a guarantee of a venue to show their work. A famous example of this situation was when New York collector and gallerist Annina Nosei took in Jean-Michel Basquiat and gave him the basement of her gallery as a studio. The time he spent working there saw him produce some of his greatest works, such as Untitled (1981), which sold at Christie’s in spring of 2014 for $34,885,000.

Unlike donating to an institution, these more individualized forms of patronage are not always successful; there is an element of gambling involved. Endorsing an individual artist opens the door to the possibility of their failure, meaning the patron’s money and resources have been wasted. Although patronage is not an investment in the traditional sense of the word, it is certainly done in the hopes of a ‘return’ in the form of the artist’s increased output and visibility. In this way, direct patronage represents a serious vote of confidence in an artist’s vision and future.

Michelangelo Buonarroti's Last Judgement, commissioned by Pope Paul III, one of the Medici Popes, courtesy of CNN 

The art world is more fixated than ever on superstar brand-name artists and making a profit ‘flipping’ the work of younger artists, and it can be difficult to gain a foothold without financial help. As the cost of urban living rises, patronage in its various modern forms continues to be crucial to the production of artworks.

Statistics from American Alliance of Museums