What does it mean to patronizethat is, to be a patron of the arts? We tend to think of patrons as individuals (like collectors) or even agencies (like the National Endowment for the Arts). More generally, patron connotes a social role. The word, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, derives from the Latin patronus, a protector or defender of clients, and, more broadly still, pater, Latin for father. A patron, in other words, is someone or something that assumes a paternalistic role with regard to the arts. Patrons nurture and cultivate, support and incubate, but to the average artist and arts organization, patronage is today virtually synonymous with funding, precisely because there is so little of it currently available.
Budget cuts, along with stiff competition, make public funding in particular an emotionally charged and highly politicized issuewhich, ironically, is why so little public funding exists in the first place. The situation here in Texas is particularly grim. We rank second to last in federal funding for the arts, just beating out the State of Florida, and falling behind Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.1 Additionally, according to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, arts funding at the state level has decreased for the third year running, with total appropriations dropping from $354.5 million in 2003 to $274.4 million in 2004a decrease of 23 percent. 2
Given these dire circumstances, what are artists and arts institutions in Texas to do? How will we continue to make and/or sponsor cutting-edge work with so little assistance from the state? Sure, patronage in the classical sense still exists, but Texas only boasts a handful of traditional patrons, most of whom already invest in the arts to the very limits of their abilities. Must we then turn to the corporate world for help or will such a move open up an ideological can of worms? Does corporate patronagenot unlike state and federal fundingdictate content? And if such support limits artists to certain aesthetic and political obligations, is it really compatible with contemporary art?
Four of the contributors to ARTL!ES N°41 propose solutions to the arts funding debacle. Hills Snyder of Sala Diaz argues on behalf of the alternative art space, noting their success in nurturing emerging artistsa form of patronage he recognizes is due in no small part to the freedom and flexibility of fiscal independence. Miki Garcia of the Public Art Fund tackles the issue of temporary public art, adopting the seemingly paradoxical position that public art and private/corporate patronage are by no means mutually exclusive. Dallas-based curator Tracee Robertson interviews Christine Hill, a Brooklyn-based artist whose practice is virtually indistinguishable from the self-perpetuating financial structure that supports it. In an extraordinary editorial, Texas Monthly writer-at-large Michael Ennis addresses the lack of arts funding in Texas, proposing solutions similar to the DIY mantra Hill espousesthat is, he believes artists should stop relying on an archaic, Medician model of patronage and learn to actively lobby on behalf of their own interests.
In effort to understand some of the pitfalls of private and corporate forms of patronage, Houston-based artist and critic Kelly Klaasmeyer considers what can happen when a patron's social agenda or myopic aesthetic sensibilities overtake the content of a public art project. Intrigued by the recent announcement that the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art is deaccessioning its entire collection,3 we invited the CAM's Marti Mayo to explore the intrinsic benefits and drawbacks of the non-collecting museum and its unique role in fostering a contemporary art community. The MFAH's Alison de Lima Greene, on the other hand, offers an in-depth historical perspective on patronage, detailing how, when and why modern art made its way to TexasHouston specifically. Her argumentthat modern art could not have flourished without the collaborative efforts of museums, universities, curators, architects, and private collectors alikeis still relevant today.
Finally, prolific Danish art critic Lars Bang Larsen's essay is something of an anomaly in that it was submitted rather than commissioned. A few weeks prior to going to press, we were approached by Gavin Morrison and Fraser Stables of Atopia Projects, co-curators of the exhibition Inset, currently on view at the Blaffer Gallery in Houston. The curators are in the process of creating a dispersed publication to accompany their exhibitionthat is, a catalogue scattered over the globe in various publications, both paper and electronic. Serendipitously, Larsen's essay broaches the topic of patronage in a wholly original manner, using Stalinist propaganda to elucidate how patronage can function as a form of social and political repression. Including Larsen's essay also gave ARTL!ES the opportunity to itself function as a patron of contemporary art. In this case, however, the support we provided was intellectual rather than financial in nature, a denotation of the term patron not overtly explored in any of the features.
What did we take away from these essays? Given the meager sources of funding currently availablea situation that is not likely to change in the near futureartists must begin to shoulder some of the burden themselvesthat is, they must learn to act as their own patrons, whether this means launching artist-run spaces (a new crop has just opened in both Austin and San Antonio) or developing alternative networks of distribution, both for art and information. And if Mr. Snyder is to be believed, artists will be all the better for it. Yet more traditional forms of patronage, public as well as private, still have an important role to play in supporting and sustaining the arts in Texas. Indeed, if Texas has any hope of transforming its art scene into what Mr. Ennis calls culture, a variety of sources of patronage must remain activeand new sources must be activated.
Kelly Baum is the Assistant Curator of American and Contemporary Art at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, and a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Delaware.
Anjali Gupta is a freelance video producer and arts writer based in San Antonio. She is the Reviews Editor of ARTL!ES, and a frequent contributor to such publications as tema celeste, Art Papers and Punk Planet.
1 This number is based on the amount of financial assistance states receive from the National Endowment for the Arts, as reported by the Associated Press, 28 December 2003.
2 Source, artnet.com, January 8, 2004.
3 See Alison Leigh Cowan, Selling Off Yesterday's Art to Make Way for Tomorrow's,The New York Times, 31 October 2003, p. E2.