The future of Patronage
How to move forward when the money runs out
by Madeline DeFilippis | 23 November 2020
Karsten Moran for the New York Times
The United States Justice Department recently announced a settlement with Purdue Pharma, the US-based company which produces the drug OxyContin. The settlement states that Purdue Pharma claims criminal responsibility for the marketing of its drug which has been linked to widespread over-prescribing and subsequently abuse and spread of what has become known as the ‘Opioid Crisis’. The Sackler family owns and operates Purdue Pharma, and have been avid supporters of the arts since the mid-twentieth century. The settlement requires Purdue Pharma, which has been sued by over 2000 U.S. cities, to pay $8.3 billion in penalties. It is hoped that this settlement will lead to individual settlements of lawsuits by families across the country who lost livelihoods and loved ones to drug abuse and drug overdose.
The Sackler family has supported institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), the Guggenheim (NY), the Tate Gallery group (London), and the National Portrait Gallery (London), and a member of the Sackler family has established the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. They are not alone; uber-rich families and individuals have always funded the arts. The tradition of patronage can be traced back to ancient times, but perhaps the most famous early modern patrons were the likes of Madame de Pompadour, the official chief court mistress of Louis XV in the eighteenth century. Kings and Queens, nobility and rich merchants commissioned portraits, religious and history paintings, and sculpture from the most famous artists of the day. As the public sphere slowly developed, the bourgeoisie gained the means to fund their own arts institutions. In the early twentieth century, groups of wealthy and powerful businessmen, art collectors and politicians came together to found what are now great national galleries. However, these galleries receive little to no state funding. The institutions, therefore, rely on independent private donations and patronage from interested wealthy benefactors.
Despite the appeal of millions of dollars or pounds, in recent years various institutions have come under fire for having accepted money from individuals whose personal wealth has been amassed through nefarious enterprises. Warren Kanders, formerly a Vice Chairman of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, resigned from the board after eight artists withdrew from the 2019 Whitney Biennial exhibition over concerns related to his business. Kander owns Safariland, which manufactures various military items, including bulletproof vests, tear gas and gun holsters. Reports revealed that products created by Kanders’ company were used against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. This controversy is one of many in an industry which relies on the wealthy to maintain their underpayment of their most key workers. This has been plainly seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, as billionaires such as Jeff Bezos (who bought an Ed Ruscha work for $53 million in February 2020) get richer and key workers are furloughed. In August, the Tate Gallery group made half of their work force in London, Liverpool and St Ives redundant. Museums and galleries have begun the proceedings whereby they sell off their collection in an effort to be financially stable through the pandemic and after – Agnese Oliveri wrote about the L.A. Meyer Museum and the Baltimore Museum, after firmly stating that they were going to follow through with the sales, decided to call it off after artists on their board resigned.
Artists, too, will be hit hard by the pandemic, as they traditionally rely on commissions. Arts Council England announced in March 2020 their plan to support artists financially, but their criteria for individual artist grants include having ‘a track record in publicly funded culture’. As Artists’ Union England noted, this type of plan reflects the poor experiences of ‘working-class artists in a sector dominated predominantly by middle and upper-class white men’.
The pandemic has merely placed a spotlight on issues in the arts and culture sector which have existed for the better part of the last 600 years. Artists such as Nan Goldin, who was addicted to OxyContin for a period of her life, have been brave enough to step forward and express their experiences in the face of losing the support of the upper echelons of the art world. Goldin refused to allow a retrospective of her work move forward in 2019 unless the National Portrait Gallery refused to take donations from the Sackler family.
In 2019, after Purdue Pharma tentatively agreed to a previous settlement, the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery announced that they would not accept gifts from the Sackler family. This is not an easy decision, as these institutions do not receive nearly enough state funding to maintain their yearly programmes, as well as their prodigious workforce. But, these gifts also often come with strings attached: wealthy collectors will often donate funds or access to their collections with the promise of their collection being on show at least once every ten years. It’s a Catch-22: either museums face the wrath of their artists and the public for their acceptance of blood money, or they are consistently under-funded and are forced to show their most lucrative artists, at the risk of excluding artists of diverse backgrounds.
What is the solution? Can museums continue to accept funds from those like David Koch, a long-time Republican strongman who circumvented climate change science, but also funded a $65 million renovation of the Met in New York? Are these donors generous or scheming? When there are not enough donors, museums like the Met have to institute incredibly high admission fees for the first time in their histories in order to keep the lights on. Galleries such as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, on the other hand, will have to consider what their future is as a business which bears the name of the family fallen from grace.
The future of art is uncertain, but what is clear is that art institutions have a difficult road ahead of them, securing ‘clean’ money, maintaining a large workforce and paying them a living wage, and seeking out artists who represent a diverse range of classes, races, ethnicities, and genders. Instead of an industry which prides itself on ‘educating’ an uncultured public, the arts industry can develop a community which is run by artists, creators and critics. This way, a more equitable industry can develop which does not require the ‘starving artist’ to sit at the forefront of creative genius.