- Joseph Givens
Term that describes the social relationship between the person who supports—and later maintains—an artistic production and the creator of a cultural object. Before the late 19th century, it was understood that artistic production was the result of a skilled craftsperson executing the inspired concept of the patron. Prominent late antiquity scholar Procopius of Caesara (500–565 ce) produced a laudatory account of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (482–565 ce), whose role in the architectural and decorative revitalization of the empire exemplifies the elevated role of the patron in the creative process at this time. By the 13th and 14th centuries, improved accuracy in historical documentation, accompanied by detailed financial records relating to artistic production, revealed a more collaborative relationship between the artist and patron. The Chancery records from the reign of Henry III of England (reg 1216–1272) describe a patron who maintained a circle of artistic advisors and directed them with detailed specifications for architectural planning and interior design.
In the 14th century a rising humanist sentiment changed the dynamics of patronage and elevated the status of the artist. Because of the increased symbolic value of visual art during this time, artists began to enjoy the cultural prestige once reserved only for writers. Records from Pope Urban the VII (reg 1590) and Pope Alexander VII (reg 1655–1667) describe patrons who were both enchanted by Gianlorenzo Bernini’s creative work and enamored with his character. The rise of the urban middle class changed the economic realities of both the patron and the artist. Members of the new merchant class sought to stake their claim as cultural leaders in the early modern world, and their program of conspicuous consumption of symbolic goods resulted in a demand for art from a burgeoning secular market. Artists, who now considered themselves part of the new middle class, embraced a new identity of creative genius free from the working-class connotations of the guild system.
Cosimo de’ Medici (reg 1569–1574), the Grand Duke of Tuscany, is credited with the dissemination of the Renaissance style. He realized the propaganda value of visual art and the power of patronage. Seeking to build an empire and a dynasty that would rival the greatest European courts, he communicated his ambitions through the majesty of architectural splendor and the artistic enhancement of public works. Cosimo went well beyond commissioning buildings and artworks by fostering a culture of creativity. He organized excavations at Etruscan sites and recovered objects that elaborated on the myth of the Florentine creative genius, which allegedly traced its roots to the formation of the Roman Empire. Cosimo’s most enduring acts of patronage are a result of his relationship with the artist and early art historian Giorgio Vasari. Under Cosimo’s direction, Vasari developed a program of frescoes extolling the glory of Cosimo’s rule and filled the Palazzo Vecchio with an unmatched collection of art. Featuring paintings, tapestry, bronzes, and marble statuettes, some of which dated back to antiquity, the Palazzo Vecchio is considered an early model for the modern museum. Cosimo and Vasari documented the biographies of artists in the encyclopedic text Vite, which outlines the lives and careers of over 133 creators. The Vite have been revered as a foundational art historical text for centuries.
Outside of Italy, an emerging mercantile class and technological advancements made patronage less expensive and more available to the public. The rise of prints allowed individuals like the German artist Albrecht Dürer to create multiples and solicit funding from numerous sources. In the Protestant Netherlands, paintings were sold at market along with goods such as meat, produce, and sundries. To meet the demands of this new economy, artists worked within new genres, including still life, landscape, and domestic portraiture.
During the age of Absolutism, in the 17th century, the most powerful rulers monopolized artistic patronage—a game in which French king Louis XIV (reg 1643–1715) was the most dominant player. With the help of artist Charles Le Brun, Louis XIV established art as an official, state-run cultural institution managed by a hierarchal bureaucracy of administrators. Louis XIV exerted influence on all aspects of art production. He founded the institutions of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1664 (see Paris, §VI, 1), the Académie de France in Rome in 1666, and Académie Royale d’Architecture in 1671 (see Paris, §VI, 2), thus ensuring that “academic art” would become the model of creative excellence for generations.
In 1793, on the first anniversary of the Storming of the Tuileries, an insurrection that led to the overthrow of the monarchy, the Palais du Louvre in Paris opened as the Musée Central des Arts. The formation of the Louvre was a result of the shift in art patronage from the Maison du roi to that of government administration. Art patronage for the Republic emphasized the responsibility to make key works accessible for the enjoyment and education of the general public and to preserve such works for posterity. As a consequence of this mission, the Louvre became the model for all subsequent public museums.
Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries the dominance of work commissioned by patrons for specific purposes began to subside, as economic capitalism, political democracy, and the dealer-critic system transformed the relationship between patron and artist. Ambroise Vollard and other gallery directors who purchased artworks directly from Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, and other avant-garde artists sold those items on the free market, providing a platform for financial support without the constraints of patron demands and free from the regulations of academic bureaucracy (see Art market). Most creators perceived the transition to the free market as a positive development, because artists were liberated to explore new techniques and pursue individual expression. However, others were skeptical of the capitalist economy. Art critic Clement Greenberg expressed concern that the free market was no less of a constricting presence in art. Moreover, he argued that the market, concerned only with profit, could not advocate for an artist or advance the cause of culture in the way patronage had for centuries.
Following World War II, a new billionaire class utilized art patronage, in the form of trusts, to both increase cultural capital and shelter income from taxes. Oil baron J. Paul Getty grew his family’s oil investments into the largest private fortune in the world. Between 1948 and 1953 he donated over $700,000 worth of art to the Los Angeles County Museum. In addition to the private collection, the Getty Trust received enough Getty Oil stock to establish a $700 million endowment. Under the leadership of Harold Williams, former chairperson of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the trust set out on a mission of expansive contribution to the study of art. After the value of the trust soared to $1.7 billion in 1983, the foundation planned and constructed a vast campus to house the art collection and educational institutions. The Getty Foundation remains the world’s wealthiest art foundation, and the Getty Museums are among the most visited in the world.
Paradigm shifts in the wake of technological advancements in the 21st century gave rise to the social media phenomenon that provides an infrastructure for a new form of patronage known as crowdfunding, an alternate form of financing that connects the artist or institution to donors through a software platform. Leveraging the low-cost and broad reach of social media platforms, artists cultivate a direct connection with patrons and “fans” by offering exclusive content, rewards, credits, and artwork in exchange for financial support. The Friends of the Louvre, which was launched in 2002 with the goal of offering exclusive experiences for various levels of patronage, is evidence that even the most venerated art institutions have acknowledged the crowdfunding phenomenon.
See also sections on patronage within country and culture articles.
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