On Patronage

George Lepauw
Sep 7, 2016 · 11 min read

Although this article focuses on artists and patrons, the concepts I lay out here can easily be applied to entrepreneurs and investors in addition to artists and patrons, as they dig into what moves people to take action on creative projects of any kind. It goes without saying that here we are merely scratching the surface of this immense topic.

Beethoven once dreamed of a “music store” where he could deliver his compositions in exchange for all the things he needed to continue composing: paper and writing supplies, of course, but also candles, wood, food, coffee and wine, basic living expenses, and anything else he might need to live and work. His idea was that he should never have to worry about the commerce of music, leaving that to others, and instead spend all his energy on the production of music, which would amply suffice to justify the exchange of goods necessary to continue living without undue financial stress. In reality, however, he spent a lot of time on the business of music in order to survive as an independent musician. There was no “music store” then, and none today, but there are crowdfunding platforms, and I am convinced Beethoven would have jumped at the opportunity to use them if they had been available to him.

For the first time in my life, I myself have decided to use a crowdfunding platform to ask people to support me for a host of musical and creative projects I am intent on pursuing (check it out here). I am a concert pianist with an unconventional and multidisciplinary approach to art, and a cultural activist focused on improving the state of, and access to, the arts. This is a big step for me because I am much more at ease asking people to support someone or something else than I am asking for direct support of my personal creative projects. Yet I have, along with an amazing team, raised a lot of money for the International Beethoven Project (IBP), a not-for-profit I founded eight years ago in Chicago, an organization dedicated to keeping classical music relevant to the 21st century, and built on Beethoven’s legacy of creativity, courage, and compassion. IBP is about community, expanding audiences, and supporting the work of artists across many fields, causes I deeply believe in. While fundraising can be challenging, asking for money is a necessary part of this business model, and I have learned a lot in this process. Asking people to support me personally, however, feels even more challenging than asking on behalf of a cause that is bigger than me. Yet, what I have learned from my work on IBP is that successful fundraising requires absolute conviction in the cause at hand.

I am writing about this issue in large part to address the discomfort many artists feel with the act of asking, and also because I, too, need to be reminded to reach into my own well of inner conviction when doubt creeps in. The principles of successful fundraising are not just a means to a practical financial end, but are a crucial part of the artistic process itself, as they serve a critical role in fine-tuning our work. I am hoping my thoughts here can help others find their purpose, their fundraising groove, and give some focus to their quest, whether they be artists or entrepreneurs.

Asking for money, however, is only half of the equation. I also want to give those of you who have the means to lend financial support insights into why you should support artists, entrepreneurs, and other creative people in achieving their goals. Indeed, I believe artists and patrons must not only tolerate each other, but should actively collaborate in an essential partnership to fulfill society’s vital need for art and creativity.

The Artist as Entrepreneur

Beethoven’s “music store” would have simplified things for him. Without it, he was forced to stitch a living from multiple sources: teaching and performing (which he could not do regularly from about age thirty-five due to his increasing deafness), producing his own concerts and taking a profit if if he was lucky enough to have one, selling his compositions to publishers around Europe for a one-time fee at a time when royalty systems were not codified, receiving commissions from institutions or individual clients, and lastly, seeking patrons. Making all this work required huge dedication beyond the act of composing music. Organizing concerts, negotiating with publishers, venue owners, musicians, clients, patrons, and constantly writing letters and meeting with people at home, in coffee shops, taverns, princely homes, and at the imperial court, was his daily diet. But in the end, it was the patronage he benefitted from that made all the difference, representing at least fifty percent of his income in most years. Would we have Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” had he not had that kind of support? It is a question we can legitimately ask.

Most artists and probably plenty of entrepreneurs will recognize themselves in Beethoven’s hustle. I like his example because it is a realistic portrait of a working artist: patronage was not a luxury and did not give him a life of luxury. It helped him tremendously on his way to fulfilling his potential, and he was relieved to have the help. It also says a lot about how hard it was even for an artist of his calibre, one who was considered the successor of Haydn and Mozart, and who had achieved fame in his lifetime (twenty thousand people attended his funeral when he died), to have a financially secure life. The great Beethoven, the musical titan of his age, needed patrons to succeed. He had to find the humility, the confidence, and the courage to ask for help. His belief in his talent, along with plenty of grit, led him to receive the help he needed most of the time, though like all of us he endured his share of rejection, too. Ultimately, his self-confidence, backed by his work ethic, and proven track-record of accomplishment, attracted the patrons he needed in order to make his musical vision a reality.

The first rule for achieving anything noteworthy is having the resources to go for it. Without that, the game is over before it even starts, and no great artist would ever have a chance. A constant in most successful artists’ lives is a social and financial support network, especially in the critical early stages. For an artist, it is not just a matter of having food on the table and a bed somewhere. It is also about having the time, space, the means to create, and the supportive social environment to get the word out about the artist’s work.

Asking for help is painfully difficult at times, especially for something as potentially vague as art, and the artist must learn to articulate what she needs to reach her vision. Defining what it means to be an artist can be another issue complicating our relationship with potential supporters. It is challenging because there are so many ways to make art. For some, it is easier than others: being a painter, musician, or filmmaker, for example, are straightforward enough disciplines to explain. But what exactly is a conceptual artist, an installation artist, a performance artist, a sound artist, a multi-disciplinary artist, an avant-garde artist? The definitions get blurrier and can sound confusing and even plain ridiculous. Today more than ever, it is clear that artists everywhere are increasingly defying genre limitations, making it harder to categorize work with certainty. But being an artist is not a vocation conducive to tidy definitions. Supporters, however, need to connect with the artist’s work somehow, and one of the challenges of patron-artist relationships is finding a common language, a basis for understanding each other’s point of view.

Artists must be so obviously committed to art, that explaining what kind of artist they are becomes almost irrelevant to patrons. In my case, I know I am, at the core, deeply committed to art, because I cannot live life any other way than through art, and I continue, year after year, to have the incontrovertible urge to create. It is irrepressible, and I persist through highs and lows. It is a need and an instinct I cannot ignore. Being an artist is not, ninety-nine percent of the time, an easy life choice to make, though it enriches my life every day. The artists who have major commercial successes are few and far between, and even those rarely sustain their levels of material success throughout their entire careers. An artist cannot go into art with the goal of making money above all else; better to train for some other profession. The reward for the artist is, first and foremost, the ability to make art, and to send good work into the world. Artists are not, by and large, greedy. Money and fame are secondary considerations, and often come with their own pitfalls. Very simply, the key to happily being an artist is having what one needs to live and to make art; no more, no less.

The reasons art needs to exist often sound esoteric, but can anyone actually imagine living in a world without music, without visual art, without film, without stories, without good design, without good architecture? Over thousands and thousands of years, humans have pushed artistic expression in ever-evolving directions. It has been an essential part of our evolution as a species, not a luxurious afterthought. Art touches people deeply, brings consolation, adds empathy, and tightens communities. Art expresses every feeling, brings to light every pain, every joy, all the hate and all the love of our world. In its search for meaning, art tunes and harmonizes the world. But it also has the power to move people to take action, and lead us to a better, more just and loving era of humanity. How we use art is up to all of us. What is most clear is that we all need it in our lives (we are all art junkies in some way or another), and being an artist is wholly justified and essential. Artists should never feel guilty for being artists, whether to their parents, friends, or to society generally. And I would hope that parents, friends, and society would support artists entirely in their purpose.

This leads me to the crux of this entire thought process: society needs art and therefore needs artists. The world without art is not viable, and thus it is the inherent responsibility of artists to make art, while it is the absolute responsibility of society to support art and our creative instincts. We can debate the work of every artist out there, we can criticize artists and their art, but never should we brush aside our absolute need for art.

The Role of Patrons

Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, from whose name the French word for patron, mécène, is derived, was a political advisor and de facto culture minister to Octavian, Rome’s first emperor. He is remembered as one of the most influential, wealthy, generous, and enlightened patrons of the arts, and one who played a significant role in the success of the poets Horace and Virgil, among others. Most importantly, he provided a viable model for personal and political patronage that continues to hold sway. He was one of the first people to truly articulate, through his actions, the benefit that art can have as a culturally unifying force and as a tool of political influence. Rome’s impact in its own time, as well as over the last two millennia, stems not singly from its political and military power, but also from its poets and artists whose influence continues to be felt. Maecenas understood the important role artists played in the development of civilization. But he also genuinely enjoyed spending time with artists, and learning more about their art, in addition to the personal satisfaction he received knowing that his financial support improved their ability to do their best work. And though Horace and Virgil are the most famous artists he supported, they were but two of dozens or even hundreds, mostly forgotten today, who benefitted from his patronage, and were important members of the Roman art scene. Maecenas knew that there was nothing to lose in supporting even minor artists: all of them added something to Rome’s, and to his, glory.

Artists have always had to find a plethora of ways to survive and deliver on their skills and talents, as Beethoven did. Commerce alone has almost never been enough to sustain us; we have always needed patrons to make up the difference. But I have come to realize, and happily accept, that artists and patrons play an essential role together, which all should embrace with joy. Artists and patrons have indeed changed the world numerous times, and need to keep working together to continue on that path. In supporting artists, patrons can be assured of the good it does for the world, however big or small the impact. Together, artists and patrons participate in an essential act of civilization and community building.

Artists should never feel like beggars. We occupy a role the world needs us to fulfill, even if it does not always feel that way and we do not receive the recognition we sometimes feel we deserve. Neither should we allow ourselves to get cocky, or bitter, or disrespect those who can help us. We need to recognize that patrons are essential members of our team, working toward the same overarching goals we are, using the tools available to them. Whether you are using a crowdfunding platform, writing grants, or going directly to patrons, options are out there. Depending on your line of art, your social circles, and your general circumstances, you will find a way to connect funding to your cause, as long as you persist and are true to your personal mission.

In equal measure, patrons should understand how critical their role is to the world, and how much they can contribute to the arts as co-creators. Artists are where they are supposed to be for our common benefit, and they have only one goal: to make art. Without patrons, that art would rarely see the light of day. Anything patrons can do to help artists along is a net positive for this human experiment we are all in. Art is not a business in traditional profit and loss terms, even if some art fetches millions and can be very profitable for investors. Art, and the most creative projects some people are capable of coming up with, regardless of their cost and value, are a net positive for society.

Support art with your gut, with no fear of making a bad choice. Go where you think you can help most. Do not only support the largest arts institutions in your area, though they may also need your support. Diversify your portfolio, and contribute something to smaller organizations working hard to make a difference, or to individual artists, or art collectives, who are pushing boundaries every waking hour of the day and night. Help shape the emerging art scenes all around you by assisting artists who are still hungry (literally and figuratively). Make your city and your country havens for creativity and art. It makes a difference.

Today’s crowdfunding systems, in addition to traditional options, make it easier than ever for anyone to become a patron, regardless of wealth. Even contributing twenty dollars can have a positive impact on someone’s ability to make art, just as young professionals can contribute to creative work without a significant investment, learning the ropes of patronage early on. Even those on a small budget can support art, and there is absolutely no reason to stay out of the art world. And while wealthier patrons should play a big part in as many ways as they can, helping individual artists as well as organizations, most of us, regardless of wealth, can do something to advance the cause of art.

We can all be involved in this, wherever we are coming from, which is why this is such an exciting time for art. It is healthy for art when patrons across the spectrum of wealth are involved, and not just the top percent. That is the beauty of the online crowdfunding age, which has opened up patronage to the masses for the first time in history. If everyone were a patron, the world would be a more beautiful place. We all need to remember that the joint mission of artists and patrons is to make art thrive. Together, we are stronger and can make a positive impact on this fractured world. Beethoven and Maecenas both understood this and played their parts. May there be many more like them.

I am very interested in what you have to say about this topic, and what your personal experiences might be. If my thoughts generate a reaction, please leave a comment.

I am thankful to my patrons on Patreon who are helping me advance my work everyday. Consider adding your name to the list! Check out my Patreon page here: www.patreon.com/georgelepauw

Check out the International Beethoven Project: www.internationalbeethovenproject.com

Check out my personal website: www.georgelepauw.com

And you can follow me on social media here: www.facebook.com/lepauw | www.twitter.com/georgelepauw | www.instagram.com/georgelepauw

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