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Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005

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Patronage in the Modern Age

The following post was from my original blog on ronincyberpunk.com, it is archived here for posterity purposes

Patronage by definition is the act of sponsoring someone, some group or some institution. Jason Kottke, in his move to go pro, has attempted to open the door to patronage for blogging once more. So I felt it would be interesting to look back over the history of patronage.

Patronage is an old practice, going back as long as there has been economy. The wealthy supporting the artistic or musically inclined, is not uncommon, and it is the tool for many stories. Without this act we wouldn't have the vast majority of amazing art which we have today.

But what happened? What changed that people no longer put the same support in for the individual? Why are artists, performers, musicians and the ilk no longer directly under patrons. The truth is that patronage isn't gone, it's face has just changed.

During the middle ages and renaissance and even colonial America, education was different. It was not government funded, it was not the long drawn out system it is now, and there were no liberal art degrees. During those times, education was predominantly an apprenticeship system, no matter the field - instead of going to a school for rote learning, it was hands on and single goal oriented. As such, people were trained in a specific area and they were set on their path for life. Today's schooling is aimed much more at making well rounded individuals. The higher you go in education, the more specialized you become. This is quite a switch from the apprentice style of learning.

One thing which has not changed is that people love beauty, it is universally loved, though what is considered beauty may change, everyone has their mark for it. Call it genetic predisposition, call it whatever you want, but it's true. And as such, the people with money, seek beauty. Whether in people or items. In today's world they can have it, plastic surgery, purchasing paintings, clothes, jewelry, cars, homes; everything is at their disposal through the magic of modern technology.

But back, before the industrial revolution, and even before the printing press, the story was quite different. Technology did not have the replication factor it has today. A masterpiece was one of a kind. It wasn't valuable due to a publisher's decision to limit production, it was valuable because it was the production it was the master's work. Sure you could have copies made, but those were hand made and susceptible to obvious mistakes or differences and they downplayed on the individuality of the original. And so to have a great artist on your staff, or in your service, was a great boon in the search for beauty. This spurned patronage to begin. And from this style also came the patronage of music, theatre and even technology.

One thing you'll discover about the history of education is that the age of entering the work force was fairly young for a long time, even into the beginning of the industrial revolution. It is a fairly recent jump for the increase of the age to begin working full time. Doctors now have almost ten years in school and a handful more in hospitals before we consider them safe to enter the public practice on their own. Architects must go through their schooling and then enter an apprenticeship period before becoming a licensed architect. Where the college educated workers enter the work force around 23, other workers usually enter in their mid to late teens, which is still years later than when children barely seven or eight would enter the work force as apprentices to someone. Sure you could argue we enter the workforce earlier with our afternoon jobs or summer jobs, but I'm referring to full time, sunrise to sunset jobs.

With this shift in education and change in the availability of art, so changed the style of patronage. No longer is patronage focused on the individual, but instead it is focused on the institution. The famous Andrew Carnegie is a perfect example, he was of the firm belief that instead of donating his wealth to individuals or to the poor, he would donate it to educational institutes and in doing so would help raise the overall level of society by enhancing the educational facilities. I don't know for sure if the change was society following his lead, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was a big factor.

So where does that leave us? I started this by talking about Jason Kottke and his blogging. He's attempting to do what other bloggers have failed to do, and that is make a living off of the 'micropatrons' of the blogosphere. Right. Back on track.

So if I say Public Broadcasting, people immediately think of America's PBS, which is probably immediately followed by the memories of Red Skelton telethons or maybe Sarah Brightman singing songs from Phantom of the Opera, which PBS always seems to be running for their fund raising. Why is that? Why can't they run one marathon a year and then stop bothering us for money? The answer is quite simple, because we're their patrons.

When an artist had a patron, he usually lived with the family, perhaps in a guest house or something along those lines, but he could either live on a stipend or perhaps have access to his patron's line of credit. Either way, as long as he didn't go hog wild on spending, he didn't necessarily have to bother his Patron for more money except when the stipend was due.

PBS, and those who rely on the public patrons, have to run these telethons or pledge week's because they need the money and they won't get it if they don't ask. It may be annoying to us, but it works.

The game has changed though. It's now possible, via the magic of technology, to schedule payments or donations on a regular basis. I'm amazed this hasn't become a bigger thing in the world of patronage. Over the summer, when I'm earning income again, I'll be setting up a monthly donation to Jason Kottke because I value his ability to write and share what is on the Internet.

In an earlier version of the entry I wrote this: Musical patronage would only work for the lesser popular areas. The music industry has become such a widespread full blown massive money maker that it has no need for patronage anymore.

But that isn't true. There are a number of composers and musicians who don't make it. What we see on CD labels are *cough* cream of the crop and the luckiest of the lucky. Music would still benefit from patrons if they sought out musicians and composers and provided them with an income to allow them to create the aural beauty.

Patronage is not completely dead, it's simply completely different than what it used to be. Instead of seeking one person to sponsor your organization, organizations are seeking multiple donors to support them. Fund raisers and pledge drives are commonplace, but it seems like everyone is clamoring about how, if they want to drum up donations, they have to offer compensation for donations. And that drives me up the wall. Society has engraved something so deeply into our minds that we react reflexively whenever someone asks for what appears to be a free handout.

I'm not talking about beggars on the street, those people are asking for true free handouts. For the most part, they aren't supplying anything in any form to society. What overrides that notion is that they are humans and our care for the fellow human being we are pushed to give them fifty cents or a dollar and help them survive. I'm not saying we shouldn't help them out, but I want to separate them from my current topic for the time being.

What I am talking about is PBS, or NPR radio, or schools, or Jason Kottke the blogger. Don't they provide for us already? PBS provides an outlet for entertainment. NPR provides us Beethoven and Bach during rush hour. The schools already educate and provide for those in attendance. Jason Kottke has a way of blogging which enthralls the readers and keeps us reading daily. Why should they provide us with incentive, beyond what they already do, to donate? My answer is that they shouldn't have to. They're spending money, which they need - thus the pledge drive, to bring in more donations.

It isn't that they need to provide further incentive, but it is that we as the donor need instant gratification and a feeling that our money wasn't wasted. Even if we know we'll be watching PBS with the kids, or listening to NPR the very next day, or even sending a kid off to our alma mater in the coming years, or maybe we'll be opening the browser and going to read Jason's site later. It still isn't enough for many of us.

A sort of Pandora's box was opened when telethons began offering a vhs cassette or any number of other rewards for donating and now it can't be closed. It is literally impossible to avoid negative comments if someone asks for donations and does not offer anything in return and that's a sad thing.

Now there is one caveat to what I've said about giving items in return for donations. It's something having to do with persuasion and the deeply embedded social rule of trading. The Hare Krishna's are a religious group, and for a long time they've been out on the streets and outside stores, requesting donations so that they can continue their work. But they found something out, something which is now a staple example in psychology courses across America. They discovered that by giving people a small flower, a daisy for example, before they requested a donation, netted them a staggering increase in people who stopped and dug for a dollar or more. This again shows the mental tattoo that where able, we should always trade. And that they gave us a flower, so the least we can do is give them a dollar.

I wanted to point this out as a counter point to giving gifts in return for donations. This is a persuasion technique designed to bring in donations.

So we've seen where patronage was, where it is, so there is only one place yet to go, where it will be.

But then we have to ask ourselves, how can full blown individual patronage work in the modern day? There are several concerns which will need to be addressed by some who may get involved perhaps for profit. Who owns the work which is produced while under patronage? Is it the artist / writer / musician or the patron? What are the requirements for fulfilling the duty of patronage? But this seems to me to defeat the purpose of patronage, all these questions can be avoided by simply giving someone money and then leaving them be.

I think we'll see a minority of patrons arise in the coming months, or perhaps years. Blogging is still very young and people are still of the belief that it might just be a long lasting fad and that people might stop writing. I think we'll eventually find some people who come forward and step up as patrons. These people may not be Marc Cuban, in fact they may not really be all that wealthy, they'll just be well off enough to donate to perhaps one other person.

If someone were ask me directly where I think patronage is going, I'd be hard pressed to make firm predictions, I'm no Nostradamus I'm just a normal guy.

Thinking over this all, I think there is one more thing I need to address about the future of patronage. And that is, having a single person who you know you can go to and ask for money, is kind of an odd feeling. You have one person, as opposed to the hundred which Jason has, who has made you an investment and while they may not expect any return on the investment - it becomes a motivating factor. And it's an odd sensation to realize this. It's difficult to call someone up and ask for more money knowing that they're providing it for you so you can do your thing. It goes against our grain once we are out of the parents' house and "on our own."

For patronage to make a full blown return, those involved are going to find it takes some adjusting.

3/2/2005 9:00 am | |
Tags: archived writing, ronincyberpunk

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