The pluses and perils of patronage

A close friend who spent his career in New York City retired to Asheville several years ago. A patron of The Asheville Art Museum and The Asheville Ballet, he recently decided to stop supporting The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, explaining: “I am not a New Yorker anymore. I am an Ashevillean.”

His is not an unusual story. This is a time of great change in the world of patronage, with those who oppose public support for the arts asking individual communities to take charge of ensuring the vibrancy of their own local arts scene. That makes this a good time to consider the local-patronage model and its all-important origins.

Private patronage means that the wealthy assume responsibility for preserving yesterday’s cultural heritage (via retrospectives and collections), enriching today’s world (by sponsoring cultural events), and creating tomorrow’s cultural legacy (by commissioning new works).

At the dawn of the Italian Renaissance in early-15th-century Florence, a historical relationship was forged between an artist and a banker: Donatello the painter and Cosimo de’ Medici (the city’s political and financial leader); Donatello the creator and Cosimo the patron. No longer would the church be the sole determiner of artistic merit or taste. No longer would the artist be an anonymous craftsperson laboring solely for the glory of God.

By the mid-15th century, a secular class of urban merchants had been firmly established in Italy’s leading city-states. They’d survived the Black Death (1347-1375), the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the Avignon papacy (1309-1377) and The Great Schism (1378-1417) and, in the process, had left rural feudalism and monolithic Catholicism in the medieval dust. These people were asking questions; they had a sense of possibility; they had begun to define themselves as individuals, not merely as part of a group.

These people also had a new craving for education. They needed to be able to read and write effectively, because trade involves communication skills. These people were cosmopolitan (they had to be, because trade involves accepting and appreciating diverse cultures). And increasingly, these people looked to the distant, classical past for models because that past had produced empires, wealth and ideas, whereas the recent past had produced nothing but pestilence, poverty and ignorance.

Above all, however, these people came to have money. They wanted fine things, like art — often as a public symbol of their wealth and status, but equally often, in my view, for private reasons. Beauty, once encountered, becomes addictive.

And finally, these people were fiercely loyal to their community. They dedicated themselves to making their community renowned for its quality of life — in other words, for its culture. The upwardly mobile Florentine was both enterprising and a good citizen. Philanthropy and art patronage were born at the same moment as double-entry bookkeeping (another invention of the Medici family).

In some ways, today’s patrons in Asheville resemble their Florentine ancestors. Whether they’ve relocated from larger urban centers, driven by a sense of possibility for the next period of their lives, or are from old Asheville families with an ongoing sense of possibility for this region, they are individualistic, educated, cosmopolitan and have been through the last half of the last century, with its radically altered landscape in the areas of war (the bomb and terrorism), disease (AIDS), religion (existentialism and fundamentalism), communication (the Internet), globalization and space travel. Above all, they have money and want to surround themselves with beautiful things, like art.

Until recently, many of these people (myself included) have made regular pilgrimages to New York and Europe to nourish their art-hungry spirits. They’ve kept up with exhibits and performances through The New Yorker or European publications on-line. If an Albrecht Duerer exhibit was presented at The Tate, they would fly to London for it.

But as national and international travel become riskier, I believe that people accustomed to ranging far afield to experience the art they need in their lives will increasingly seek to cultivate that level of creative expression on the local scene, both for their own sakes and to benefit the communities in which they have a vested interest. Thus, money that has been spent on travel will become available for helping develop excellence at home. In short, more people will become local patrons.

Patronage is alive and well in Western North Carolina. The Asheville Ballet, for example, which receives no public funding, derives 30 percent of its income from private patronage (the rest comes from ticket sales, earned income and fund-raising events).

As a system, however, patronage entails hazards as well as rewards. The balance between an artist’s instincts and a patron’s sensibilities is as delicate as the one between partners in a marriage. When the relationship works, each feels empowered by the other, rather than dictated to. When two entities work together in this way, they forge a beautiful new thing that neither could have achieved alone. As an artist, I know that sensing a patron’s likes, dislikes and needs — and creating a ballet suited to that awareness — can be both fun and deeply rewarding. And as a patron myself, I know how gratifying it can be to enable someone else to fulfill a dream (and, in the process, make the world more lovely). Giorgio Vasari, the famed biographer of Renaissance artists, wrote: “Donatello loved Cosimo so well that he could understand all he wanted, and he never let him down.”

The patron/artist relationship entails what I consider to be sacred obligations on both sides. The patron must trust the artist. And the artist must be worthy of that trust. When a recent patron asked me to create a new “Giselle” in celebration of his deceased wife after 51 years of shared life and love of dance, I was profoundly moved. I invited him to rehearsals and to preview costume and set designs, but he said, “No, just make it perfect.” In 56 years, I have never felt such a sense of responsibility, except to my parents and children.

In today’s uncertain economy, where even food and health care aren’t universally enjoyed, the upside of patronage is that it enables art to exist at all. But the downside, in today’s fiercely independent world, is that individual taste determines collective options. At its worst, the patronage system turns the artist into a mercenary (with guaranteed unfortunate impacts on the quality of the art) and the patron into a self-aggrandizing, petty tyrant. At its best, the relationship is symbiotic, nurturing both parties. Donatello survived his friend and patron by only two years and was buried, at his request, in the crypt next to Cosimo de’ Medici’s tomb in the Church of San Lorenzo.

Money, of course, isn’t the only possible form of patronage. Word-of-mouth recommendations, goods and services (fabric, advertising space, etc.), skills, time, honest advice to boards and directors, donations of space — all these things can be vitally important to an artist or an arts organization. Donatello talked Cosimo into buying the classical statuary that was then being excavated and filling the Medici courtyard with these exquisite, pagan pieces, so that artists could gather there, as in a school, and improve their skills by copying the work of past masters.

Inevitably, stumbling blocks sometimes arise that impede the smooth functioning of the patronage system. Not the least of these is the participants’ erroneous attitudes toward one another, based on the unfortunate stereotypes our society has developed. Artists oftentimes distrust the wealthy (they must be crooked and self-serving to have become rich), and the wealthy often distrust artists (they are lazy and want to fool around all day doing unproductive things, then want to be given a handout).

In that misunderstanding, however, lies opportunity for change on both sides. I believe artists must come to value the creation of wealth, and the wealthy must come to value the labor of art. We must abandon post-Machiavellian cynicism and return to the optimism of the early Italian Renaissance — a time when skill and craft were valued in all areas of human endeavor, when human effort itself was valued, and when money was seen as a means to the end of a better life for the entire citizenry. In 1443, artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti, a contemporary of Donatello and Cosimo, wrote (and I paraphrase): “We must not, however, scorn a man who is not naturally endowed for [creative] deeds if he turns to these other occupations in which he knows he is not inept and which, everyone admits, are of great use to the family and the state. Riches are useful … for with them we can help those in need … if we use [them] munificently for great and noble projects.”

Although patronage is one very important piece of the arts-funding puzzle, I believe it’s extremely dangerous for either an individual artist or a whole community to rely solely on patronage. And I suspect that a study might show that when government supports the arts, private patronage actually increases.

But faced with dwindling public resources, those of us who make and value art are increasingly thrown back on the patronage system if we are to preserve yesterday’s world, enrich today’s world, and create tomorrow’s world. Let us, then, embrace it in its earliest and best form. Let us look to the past for our models, just as the citizens of the Italian Renaissance did. We may not achieve the perfection of the Donatello/Cosimo de’ Medici “marriage,” but together, we can help make Asheville the Florence of the United States. And then we can all say proudly, like my ex-New Yorker friend, “We are Ashevilleans.”

[Asheville resident Ann Dunn is a poet, freelance writer, choreographer, teacher and director of The Asheville Ballet, AnnDunnDANCErs and the Fletcher School of Dance.]

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