When we learn about Renaissance Florence, one of the first things any professor will introduce is banking and merchant culture, which permitted amassing wealth, which in turn permitted the commission of art and architecture, elaborate fashions, and imported luxury goods. The Medici family was not the first major patron, but it is the most famous, and it has become an emblem of its age.

mimran medici
Patrick Mimran, Medici billboard, www.mimran.com

The French artist Patrick Mimran, who is currently showing at the Museo Alinari in Florence, has been printing large advertisement-like signs with provocative statements about art for the past decade. Right now, outside the museum, is a sign that says “Today’s rich and powerful collectors are unfortunately not as tasteful as the Medicis”. Grammar aside, I would say that he may be in part right, but that he is missing at least half the story behind Medici (and their contemporaries’) patronage. It is not about taste (which is relative, and a modern construct), but about function, and about how the concept of art and artists has evolved in the past five decades, to the point that we may ask ourselves if the Renaissance model of patronage is at all viable – or desirable – in the 21st century.

As some of you know, I am involved in the promotion of a call for bloggers to be part of a team, with me, at Florens 2012 Cultural and Environmental Heritage Week next November (yeah, you can win a trip to Florence). This means that I spend a lot of time thinking about the connections between culture and economy, since the foundation running this major event is concerned with promoting best practises that demonstrate that culture can generate economy, and hopes to force policy change to help this take place.

We have assigned bloggers a few challenging themes that they are supposed to jam about on their blogs, and the nexus between the arts and economy is one of them. It would not be fair if I did not attempt this myself. We have asked bloggers to reflect on whichever themes are closest to their interests or knowledge, and what came to mind to me was my knowledge of Renaissance art production and patronage and how this differs from the current economic structure of the arts.

I am clearly not able to resolve all the world’s art funding problems in one blog post, but it is worth taking the opportunity to raise some issues, no? Feel free to extend my thoughts by writing essay-length comments below.

Renaissance patron vs. modern collector

Lorenzo de’ Medici. He was a good patron, but if you were an artist, would you ally yourself with him now?

I was thinking about what the difference is between say, a patron like Lorenzo de’ Medici and a collector like Francois Pinault when it comes to relationships with artists and how they might benefit. I don’t know what kind of relationship Mr. Pinault establishes with ‘his’ artists, if any. Is he a mentor, does he guarantee any form of return business? I assume that he commissions, and purchases, and leaves the artists to do their thing. Lorenzo de’ Medici, of course, had a different approach, putting young artists like Michelangelo in his ‘garden’ for training, and, as other Renaissance patrons, dictating subject, meaning, and probably execution to a certain extent. As far as I know, there is no contemporary patron with a method similar to the Renaissance model. The closest we get are the ‘good’ collectors.

We can also play down the contrast between past and present by remembering that not all visual or other arts was created and consumed through direct patronage of a single artist. The annals of art history are full of “the master of” this and that, precisely because there were many lesser or workshop artists who produced rather standard items that might, at most, be customized upon the request of the buyer who liked the model but wanted his own face tacked on. The fact that every patrician home in Florence had a Madonna in it dictated a market for standard Madonnas that were sometimes made in gesso, sometimes produced serially, and also often sold secondhand. This Lo Scheggia is one of the better of this type.

Lo scheggia madonna
Madonna by Lo Scheggia in the Zeri collection, Bologna

But when we speak of Renaissance patronage now, we usually have in mind the single wealthy patron and single genius artist model, so that’s the one I’m contrasting with the modern situation. And I wonder: would we even want (what we think of as) Renaissance patronage now? Contemporary artists and their Renaissance predecessors are two totally different beasts. If he could get a position at court, the Renaissance artist had a full time job and was paid, in some cases, a salary independent of what he produced – like Mantegna in Mantova and Leonardo at the French court.

Now, I don’t know many artists who would want to be tied down like this. Few artists would want to end up having to design stage sets for ephemeral events and paint flattering portraits of ugly patrons. (Those that do are called graphic designers, ha ha!) Perhaps the closest we can get to an updated and useful version of this patrician patronage model nowadays is the artists’ residence – usually underwritten by some private foundation, they provide brief but idyllic situations in which to produce in liberty.

Reasons for patronage then and now

Damien Hirst’s shark. Investment art?

The aims of each century of collectors or patrons is also different. In the Renaissance, spending was a sign of magnificenza, which was considered a good thing, and was both about your family’s image and about giving a gift to your city. Pinault, in reality, seems to be thinking along similar lines since he gave back to the world by opening a museum in Venice. In both cases, this spending on the arts reflects well upon the image of he who spends.

Personal spending in large sums now is called conspicuous consumption, and is negative despite it being not that far off from magnificenza. Especially in a crisis atmosphere, spending even by the state is frowned upon.

Mimran – the artist whose quote is illustrated at the top of this post – brings in the factor of taste. What is good taste, anyway? It is the collective western academy-learned sense of beauty, a 19th-century construct. (Chinese taste is different, and they think it is perfectly good taste.) Ed Goldberg tells me that in the Renaissance the closest concept to this might have been judgement (giudizio), a kind of level-headed decision making skill that merchants and bankers had to have in everything.

What makes the Medici’s tastes better than that of collectors now? Nothing. Just history.

What I think might play into this issue of motivation is art as investment (now) vs art as edification and enjoyment (then). We have a few testimonies to conversation in front of works of art (real or imagined) in Cinquecento literature. For example, we know people admired historiated maiolica plates and used them as conversation pieces; the story represented was inscribed often on the backside, intended to be turned over and revealed. I wonder if anyone really enjoys embalmed sharks, or if they just figure a Damian Hirst will have good resale value. The investment in art has come to extremes in the creation of Art Mutual Funds, where you become part owner of some art that a consultant says is worth something. Where is the edification in that? To paraphrase what Ed Goldberg has said about Hirst in an email: “you don’t ever get to hang it over your couch.”

Potential future models

Some givens. It is a given that aritsts (not just visual, but in any of the arts) need funding to work, and it is also a given that a civilized culture is defined by its cultural production. Let’s add to this that the arts are considered a luxury, which means they flourish in situations in which there is disposable income.

We have not seen a whole lot of disposable income in the past ten years, and to say that there have been cuts to the arts would be to state the plainly obvious. Apart from all the problems this causes, it shows a shortsightedness about the potential for the arts to – not just to educate, to edify, to delight but to – make money, plain and simple. To make money and thus to create jobs, to support families, to contribute to the economy.

In Italy, art seems to be taken for granted rather than understood as a resource; it is a burden on the state rather than an opportunity. I don’t just mean that art is an opportunity to sell more tickets or to employ more bored state employees; rather it is a chance to properly preserve, manage and promote in order to educate and generate more cultural production in the largest sense of ‘culture’ beyond just the visual arts.

In the United States, the concept of crowdfunding has taken off, with platforms such as Kickstarter leading the way in terms of number of projects presented, though there are others dedicated more to the arts. An interesting article on ArtLog describes the phenomenon of using Kickstarter to fund contemporary art projects, and I was surprised to see some projects actually earn more than their set goal. While positive for some artists, turning to the crowd means that those projects that have the greatest mass appeal are more likely to get funded and get visibility, which may not be the best thing for culture as a whole.

Not a conclusion

I, of course, have no solution. Do you? If nobody is going to fund the arts, are the arts going to have to change (unrecognizably)? We have yet to find the balance between economically viable arts, artists’ needs, what the public wants, and reasonable quality as judged by the cultural and aesthetic needs of our time.

With HUGE thanks to Hasan Niyazi and Ed Goldberg for their reflections on this material by email – what was a terrible rant is now a slightly more structured one.

If these questions interest you, you can follow the adventures of the Team Florens bloggers and I on twitter with the hashtag #Florens2012, follow @fflorens official account on twitter, and during the event watch it in streaming. And if you have a blog, apply to be part of it all!

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