Funding the arts: patronage today

There has been an uneasy relationship between artistic expression and money since Roman times. The discomfort felt by writers and artists at having their endeavours presided over by patrons is best summed up in Catullus 49. It’s a sarcastic little poem on patronage and the conventions of ‘liberalitas’ (the giving and receiving of gifts) that deftly mocks Cicero, one of the greatest orators of the day:

O most learned of the descendants of Romulus,
as many as there are and as many as there were, Marcus Tullius,
or as many as there will be later in years,
Catullus gives you great thanks,
the worst of all poets,
by as much the worst poet of all,
as you are the best patron of all.

The content is meaningless, the verse packed with empty superlatives. And that was Catullus’s point. Art beholden to patronage loses its way. Much of the same disquiet is felt in arts circles today. The Roman system may have been replaced by policymakers, objectives and tick boxes but the constraints can be the same. Being reliant on grants and handouts brings with it the inherent danger of dilution or distortion of expression.

At a Birmingham Salon debate in September, Stephen Maddock, CEO of the CBSO and Manick Govinda of the Artists’ Advisory Service debated the intricacies of arts funding in the UK with Liverpool poet Denis Joe. Stephen Maddock said: “The model we work to is part public, part private and part earned income. Securing public funding can be a bewildering process. And it’s decreasing so we have to earn more from selling our work, sponsorship and philanthropy.”

Manick Govinda observed: “New Labour created a Blairite creative economy where everything created was under industrial terms. The growth of Lottery funding led to a centralised philanthropy and art addressing social causes.”

“But those propped up by Lottery funding aren’t talking so much about art. It’s about the need for a cafe, a swish lobby, a great skyline, beautiful views...”

Preparing for Pow-Wow Litfest, a literary event held recently in Moseley, Birmingham, has led us to experience firsthand the highs and lows of the funding trail. Turned down by the Arts Council and Big Lottery, then bolstered by backing from Investec Wealth & Investment, Moseley Farmers’ Market and a host of local businesses, ours has been an interesting journey. And whilst I may agree with Catullus that liberalitas can result in art becoming at best beholden and at worst meaningless, there are certainly more healthy relationships with patrons to be enjoyed.

At the Salon debate, the American patronage system was lauded for its vision and lack of meddling. So often in the funding arena we talk of ‘demonstrable outcomes’ - proof that we are getting some kind of societal return from our collective cultural and artistic life. Funding criteria and impact reports become the hoops that organisations have to jump through, rendering the whole business of the arts a meaningless circus act. That isn’t to say, of course that there can’t be a ‘business of the arts.’ Just one that isn’t wholly reliant on funding bodies.

Arts funding in post-war Britain was born from the conviction that creative expression benefits society. But the dependency culture that has resulted is surely of benefit to no one. And this is where patronage comes in. In America, public and private sources of funding combine successfully with income streams generated by individual arts organisations. The result has been decades of boundary-pushing art, music, literature, theatre and cinema.

The best patron is one who expects little in return – in other words, the philanthropist. The patron who seeks to distort artistic endeavour for their own ends, whether a wealthy Roman or a modern policymaker, is doing the arts a great disservice.

Pliny the Younger, who lived from 61-112AD, was one of the trailblazers for modern systems of patronage. He displayed a steadfast devotion to cultural improvement throughout his life, donating to civic projects, the arts, and individuals.

Pliny entirely funded the building and maintenance of a library at Como. In fact, he donated a third of his inheritance to the town. He put on public feasts, restored temples and gave to philosophers and poets.

But would he have funded the new Library of Birmingham?

As Manick Govinda said of the FirstSite Gallery in Colchester, which apparently has impractical curvy walls that make the hanging of paintings a bit of a challenge: “An experiential culture is propping up the arts. Space seems to be given over to grand buildings, but they can feel a bit pointless. It creates a sense of a permanent art festival from which you cannot escape. Experiencing art is surely more about contemplation.”

Was this an implicit criticism of our new library? Go figure.

Pliny was rich and well-connected and it seems from his letters that he wanted to use his wealth for the greater good. This surely rings true in today’s climate as arts organisations fight over increasingly diminishing funding pots. Perhaps a more entrepreneurial spirit within the arts, coupled with generous and non-interfering support from outside is the way forward.

But what an ancient Roman would have made of the relentless carnival that is arts funding in Britain today, I’m not too sure.


This article first appeared online at The Birmingham Post