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The History & Future of Patronage


If you look up the definition of ‘patronage’ on google definitions, the contextual example reads: ‘the arts could no longer depend on private patronage’. That seems to be the best use of the word they could find.

On Wikipedia you get met with Samuel Johnson’s once famous description of a patron as "one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help”.

But now, as government funding continues to be cut, will we see a return to artists being solely funded by the sponsorship of wealthy individuals?

There is no doubt that, historically, private patronage has played an important role in the evolution of British Theatre.

Elizabeth I painting

The Royals have always supported the arts: from Henry VIII entertaining guests at Hampton Court, to Elizabeth I’s notorious love of Shakespeare’s plays and finally James I taking this one step further to own his own troop of London’s finest players - appropriately named The King’s Men. For all of these reigning Kings and Queens, private performances were the name of the game. Shows were performed in their homes and palaces often only for one night and occasionally (especially with the commissioned Masque performances) these shows would never be performed again anywhere else. They would include references to the specific guests present and jokes that were perfectly suited to their specific audience's tastes.

During the interregnum years when all theatres were closed down and public performances were illegal, tennis courts, gardens and drawing rooms became popular as secret stage spaces. As Jonathan Law says in the Methuen Drama Dictionary of Theatre:

"Secret performances continued to take place both in private homes and in such venues as the Fortuen Theatre (until soldiers dismantled it in 1640), the Vere Street Theatre (wrecked by soldiers in 1649), and the Red Bull Theatre, where several actors, including Robert Cox and Timothy Reade, were arrested."

But in 1660, when King Charles II came into power and lifted the infamous theatre ban of 1642, he not only legalised the previously illegal, but personally supported its renewed success in a desire to have more control over what was made. He created huge institutions, authorised by royal patents and placed his favoured playwrights at the head of them. After 18 years in a vacuum of theatre, the new style of drama was almost completely unrecognisable. Charles put the money behind this reincarnation and in return he got to call the shots; in this way, many wealthy individuals (not just royalty) continued to financially support the actors and writers that they loved in order to ensure that they continued to create their work.

the way of the world at the donmar warehouse

But where does all that leave us now? In 2015 the Guardian did a fascinating study on the top ten art patrons, past and present, across the world. The list included the likes of Charles Saatchi and Peggy Guggenheim and it demonstrated that in the visual arts, it is the private collections, galleries and commissions that have always been and continue to be at the core of the way the system works. Individual artists are often supported by private wealthy individuals beyond just a commission basis.

In the acting world, such noticeable one-to-one patronage is unusual, although if a producer continually hires the same actor, director or writer, then perhaps the relationship is not dissimilar. There is still an element of choosing to financially support the work and craft of an individual.

For two of the most famous patron-artist relationships that come to my mind, I admit that I mainly know about from the way they themselves have been presented in the arts. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart worked for years solely under the patronage of Joseph II, son of Maria Theresa and brother to Marie Antoinette, in Vienna. Mozart composed three operas while serving Joseph: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. What a different place the world of Opera would have been without these privately commissioned productions. This relationship has been of great interest to people over the last few decades, dissected both in film and theatre (most recently in the National Theatre's successful production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus). Much like Mozart, Haydn’s music was similarly allowed to develop its own style due to the personal patronage of Prince Nickolaus I, in Esterhaza Palace. The Shakespearean patronage mentioned fits a very similar bill, and has been equally enthralling to audiences, presented to great acclaim in the film and stage versions of Shakespeare In Love.

Looking at today’s industry - even on the highest of National levels - the stark reality is that the arts cannot rely solely on ticket sales and public funding. Many theatres such as the Almeida, the Young Vic and the Donmar Warehouse gain only a tiny percentage of the costs necessary to run such theatres from sell-out ticket sales. While we continue to live in a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, it is more important than ever that those with a surplus of cash continue to donate it to the arts. As Martin Prendergast, Director of Communications at the National Theatre, said: “Investing in the arts, on both a commercial and a personal scale, remains a brilliant way to advertise oneself as successful, charitable and cultured. And it is fortunate for us groundlings, who benefit hugely from the results of these investments, that this is so.”

national theatre front yard in winter with bare trees in the background

Between 2015 and 2018, the Arts council in the UK promised to invest £1.1 billion of public money and a further £700 million of lottery money ‘to help create art and culture experiences for everyone, everywhere’. But last year, individual charitable donations to the arts in the UK totalled £9.6 billion.

It would appear that the majority of funding for the arts still falls technically under the banner of "patronage". And philanthropy is most definitely not dead. As long as those with the money to do so, continue to remember how important their donations are in keeping a venue or company alive, we'll be in a good place!

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