11/24/2010

Patron of the Arts

I don't think I'm alone in the dream of finding a wealthy patron to materially support my artistic projects. Back in the day, an artist of talent, or at least potential talent could get hired at a manor house developing their art over a long period of time. The patron would provide food, housing, a staff, and endless encouragement. The artist would produce unique pieces that the patron could show off to their friends and gain social coin.

I've read accounts where artist-patron relationships were positive and others that were negative. The relationship between Michelangelo and Pope Julius II is legendary. The sculptor who needed money took a job painting frescoes on the ceiling of a chapel. Their relationship was the stuff of legends, immortalized by one of my favorite movies starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison - The Agony and the Ecstasy "When will it be done?" Julius asked time and again. "When it is finished," was Michelangelo's constant reply. For the artist lucky enough to find an enlightened patron willing to support visions that no one had conceived of before, the work was satisfying and continuous. For the artist unlucky enough to serve a social climbing patron, s/he might well find her/himself doing stuff they just aren't inspired to do.

With the rise of the middle class and the shift toward independent (meaning solo) thinking, the artist/patron relationship waned in popularity. In its place has emerged the artist-as-non-profit organization supported by several patrons. Strong artists with wide appeal create communities of support that allow them to express their vision freely. Others, most other artists, I think, struggle to find enough audience to support them. Many artists take work-for-hire or 'day jobs' in order to make ends meet. But I think, like me, many hope to find that perfect patron, wealthy and indulgent, supportive in every material, intellectual, and emotional way.

Pipe dream, right?

I thought so too, until I read something interesting in an emailed note from the folks over at fear.less. Tech publisher Tim O'Reilly started out as a humanities graduate with a passion for Greek and Latin classics, but became a kind of translator between the tech and non-tech worlds by writing such books to help others learn the emerging technical jargon of the last decade. He writes:

Learning the ropes of writing technical documentation was a stretch, but I'm so glad I had the opportunity. Tech writing has provided the financial support for my fiction writing career--kind of like my wealthy patron.

I was struck by his thoughtful alignment of his 'day job' with a sense of 'patronage.' By becoming a technical writer, he found a way to support himself and his passion. Work wasn't a distraction, but rather the means to an end. Reading his post, I get the feeling that he feels very fortunate to have found a way to be his own patron and doesn't consider himself a 'sell-out' like so many other artists think when they find something close but not quite what they thought to do for a living.

That's pretty much my story, and my current job does afford me both the opportunity to use my editing and writing skills everyday. About half my skills go to work that my job requires, but the paycheck allows me the time to do the passion-work too. I too have become my own arts patron, and that's pretty cool, especially when I remember to be supportive of myself materially, emotionally, and intellectually. It's a definitely shift in perspective and energy, and I'm looking forward to seeing where that shift takes me next.