You can’t buy love, as The Beatles famously proclaimed, but perhaps you can buy cultural capital. As public interest in — or at least, monetary support for — the arts continues to wane, the world of arts and letters has come to revolve around the symbiotic but potentially unsustainable relationship between the arts and their patrons: the rich exchange their material resources for a share of that intangible good, cultural credibility. In the 1400s, Italian noblemen redeemed the money they earned via the illegal practice of usury by commissioning religious artworks. Now, tech moguls deflect accusations of philistinism and intellectual bankruptcy by investing their ill-gotten gains in the humanities. (See Facebook’s Chris Hughes of the The New Republic or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos of the Washington Post for proof.) For centuries, these uncomfortable bedfellows, culture and capital, have cozied up to one another in hopes of benefitting from what the other has to offer.
What happens when a patron upsets the established framework of patronage, attempting not only to exchange money for legitimacy but also to profit materially from this legitimacy? How can cultural institutions retain their credibility when they’re beholden to the whims — and poor tastes — of capital? Of late, there’ve been a host of articles about the tenuous future of artistic institutions that rely on rich benefactors: the Wall Street Journal examined the relationship between donors and museum spaces in New York, a new Vanity Fair piece out in the January 13th edition of the magazine explored the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum’s competition for backers, and a long list of hot takes on The New Republic have probed the future of magazine publishing. Dante Ramos wrote in the Boston Globe that “TNR has long required a wealthy patron more interested in prestige than revenue potential.” By all accounts, the arts are becoming increasingly oligarchical.
But there’s another way — one that’s been overlooked in the onslaught of articles about patronage. Recently, Dazed & Confused magazine celebrated creative or artistic institutions that took the democratic route and made use of crowdfunding. Among the museums and galleries that successfully appealed to the public are the Kaji Aso Studio in Boston, a community art space hosting events and art classes in addition to exhibitions; “The Made in Cloister” restoration project in Naples, Italy, which transformed a historic cloister into a modern-day community for artists and craftsmen; and Iconoclast Books, an independent bookstore in Ketchum, Idaho that organizes literary and cultural events.
The list is a welcome reminder that there is a place for artistic spaces in our communities — that art and culture are not reserved for the elite few. Platforms like Kickstarter allow for the wide-scale funding democratization of the arts. As museums and performance spaces begin to make their work more accessible, making use of digital innovation to bring visual and performance arts to wider audiences, the art world is becoming less insular in at least some ways.
There are some drawbacks to this approach: it may not present a sustainable funding model, and it may disproportionately favor established artists. Crowdfunding can’t replace broader efforts to rethink the way that the arts are funded. But it can save floundering local institutions by appealing to the communities that love them in the short term, and it can do so with perhaps more reliability than tyrannical patrons can.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
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