Reflections on patronage

I think that it’s accurate to say that in any settled society, there are two forms of patronage, which I think of as support for cultural production (from “low” culture like pop music to “high” culture like the opera). One form is the market in which value is set by supply and demand, and the other is non-market support by which people or entities with large sums of money support something based on standards of quality (according to the patron) that don’t come from mass appeal or profitability. Of course, the common denominator is that both participants in the market and great patrons support what they want to support, but the way that market patronage and non-market patronage value cultural products is different.

Until the medieval commercial revolution in Europe, which helped to create a tiny but growing middle class, I think that it’s safe to say that the majority of patronage in societies came from great patrons supporting art, music, and literature that they felt was important, of high quality, and enhanced their reputations as great patrons. I’m sure that there were exceptions, but for most of human history the average person hasn’t had much disposable income to make the market a significant form of patronage.

With the rise of world commerce at unprecedented levels after the European colonization of the Americas and the expansion of trade with Africa and Asia, we see increasing numbers of consumers in the 1600s through today, where more and more people have disposable income to spend on things besides the bare necessities. Thus, the market has become a more and more important form of patronage of cultural products. This results in more choices for individuals, as well as a lot of lowest common denominator stuff (boy bands, Two and a Half Men, etc.). Like any human institution, the market has its strengths and weaknesses.

I think that non-market patronage is important because it doesn’t only cater to profitability and mass appeal, but rather has different standards of quality (which can be good, bad, or in the middle). I doubt that Bach’s music or Michelangelo’s art would not have been produced for a mass market. In the modern West (and especially in Europe), though, government has a significant imprint in the area non-market patronage, as evidenced by public radio and television and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. I wish that I knew what percentage of this patronage the government provides. There are obviously a lot of wealthy individuals, foundations, and corporations that act as patrons.

To me, NPR and PBS are better than talk radio and the mile-wide, inch-deep, hard on the eyes and ears coverage that major news networks offer. I also recognize that NPR and CBS are often havens for left-leaning people who indulge their agendas with some money coming from taxpayers.

As Congress debates whether to cut funding for public broadcasting, I agree with the argument that subsidizing radio and TV in the information age makes very little sense. Perhaps relying fully on traditional sources of non-market patronage (foundations, wealthy individuals) and listener contributions would open them up to pressures to include more voices across the political and cultural spectrum that would attract refugees looking for something deeper, calmer, and less self-obsessed than the for-profit news media offers.



  1. It’s interesting how you define “market” vs. “non-market”. I’m more inclined to consider them both to be markets, distinguished by size or specificity — i.e. a mass market vs. a niche market. To me, the only non-market aspect is how the government obtains its funds (i.e. through coercion).

    But aside from that terminology, I agree with you — mass vs. niche each have their own characteristic style, largely reflective of the culture that funds them. Niche affords greater depth because it is the intersection of the values of fewer people.

    Ironically, from what I’ve read regarding NPR, their target niche tends toward the upper middle class, which means that the poorer tax payers who are not as interested are subsidizing them. Viewing it as a market reveals these peculiar dynamics.

    Simply out of happenstance, I haven’t given NPR much of a chance. But I do periodically find value in PBS. And in a related niche, the non-profit C-SPAN most remarkably bounds between mind-numbingly boring and the most magnificent and truly valuable television I have ever seen (hearings, debates, books, panels).

    Similarly to you, I can’t stand most talk radio or news shows; they are so often repetitive and uninformative. They fail to answer significant questions which spring to mind while watching it. It’s frustrating.

    Scott wrote: “I wish that I knew what percentage of this patronage the government provides. There are obviously a lot of wealthy individuals, foundations, and corporations that act as patrons.

    Great question. I found this from the NEA: How the United States Funds the Arts :

    The financial statistics differ by art form and change from year to year, but in
    2004 about 44 percent of the income generated by American arts organizations came from sales or the box office. The rest was donated — overwhelmingly from the private sector.

    Only about 13 percent of arts support in the U.S. came from the government, and only about 9 percent from the federal government, of which less than 1 percent came from the National Endowment for the Arts. (The figures on government support exclude the enormous indirect subsidy the federal government provides by making cultural contributions tax-deductible.)

    As you can probably tell, I agree with your conclusion. More generally, how much should the government fund any “art” in light of their coercion and less representative construction of value?

    Defunding NPR, et al., is a slippery slope to that broader question, which people may be reluctant to address. Perhaps that reluctance might in turn save NPR or others — why head down the slope at all? Then again, Congress is not bound by such logical consistency.

    But here’s one idea I’ve mused over that might catch on as a matter of justice: all citizens should have non-exclusive copyrights to all publicly funded projects. I imagine this would have a significant impact on art, software, designs, etc. — any field that can build on other people’s work (often because of zero/low cost duplication). What do you think?

  2. Thanks for finding that data, Kevin!

    I distinguish between market and non-market by whether something is for sale in a commercial sense. I don’t think that what I would call non-market is a purchase and the motive isn’t monetary profit in the same way. (Also, I’m not using “profit” as a bad word, just as a descriptor.) Non-market patronage doesn’t typically take place in a commercial way, in my understanding. So someone who is a supporter of the opera (beyond buying tickets) is not buying a part of the opera but rather making a commitment to support a cultural product that he/she thinks is important or trying to build a reputation as a patron of the arts (or maybe both).

    13 percent isn’t so big and makes me think even more that the slippery slope is one that we ought to travel down.

    I really like your idea about the putting publicly-funded art in the public domain. It would probably reduce the amount of applications for government funding for art.

    Also, I loved your line that “Congress is not bound by such logical consistency.” True and funny at the same time.

  3. The patron may not be interested in monetary profit, but the opera company is, isn’t it? But even if not, I don’t think a market requires _monetary_ profit (though that is often a goal of one side). A market usually just implies that all sides would rather have what they are gaining than what they are losing in an exchange. In that sense, an exchange is always win-win (profitable for all sides) or else it would not occur.

    Reputation is an intangible value that can be attached to other products and services besides opera (e.g. clothes, jewelry, cars, etc.), so that doesn’t seem to make it “non-market”, at least not by itself, right?

    But there’s also a charitable gist to your example — the patron is giving more than the ticket price to view the opera. Assuming it is charity, would you consider charity to be a “market”? Are charities competing with one another to provide the biggest altruistic bang for the buck to donators? Are opera companies competing for patrons?

    Another reason a patron may subsidize the opera is because it means more to him (in terms of absolute dollars) than it does to other people. This is actually ubiquitous in markets — people value things differently (which, btw, is what makes it so difficult for the government to provide good aggregate value to the People in exchange for their taxes).

    It’s analogous to a store selling products at different prices to different people based on timing (50% off today only!), coupons, rewards points, outlets, etc. By providing multiple price levels, those who value an item more subsidize those who value it less. It’s worth it to the patron to pay more to keep the opera in existence — it’s better than his having to pay 100% of the opera’s revenue himself.

    So I think you are making a useful distinction between a patron and a typical consumer, but I still think it is beneficial to model them both as part of a market. There are degenerate markets with just one buyer or just one seller, but the patronage you describe doesn’t seem that degenerate.

  4. You point out some really good similarities. To me, the biggest difference is something “on sale” to the general public vs. a special patronage relationship.

    I also think that since we live in a time where the mass market is so much bigger and often the standard of what’s good and bad that it’s easy to subsume all exchanges into the category of markets. The language of the market becomes a paradigm in which we understand many things, but it can also obscure other motivations.

  5. What motivations do markets obscure? What motivations do markets highlight?

    If there were two opera companies and a patron only subsidized the one whose operas he preferred, would that form a market to you?

    btw, if this is a less-than-interesting tangent for you, I’m happy to move on. I’m just curious about your definition since it seems to have connotations that I can’t quite identify.

  6. I’ve got a good idea. Let’s discuss it before class tomorrow night. There’s more flexibility discussing it face to face. 🙂

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