The Return of Patronage in the Arts

The New York Times

In 2013, the editors of The Toast, an online magazine of feminist humor and commentary, asked Alexis Coe to write a regular column. Ms. Coe, a historian, was eager to accept, but couldn’t. “It was early in my career,” she said. “I couldn’t do it for the nominal fee they were offering early writers.”

Then the editors called with some unexpected news. They had found a woman (a lawyer in her early 30s) who liked Ms. Coe’s work and had offered to subsidize the column, provided she could remain anonymous to the public. Suddenly, Ms. Coe had something she had never considered herself worthy of — something that she didn’t realize actually existed in the modern world.

She had a patron.

Ms. Coe wrote 15 columns, for which she received checks exceeding the standard pay rate. She said she and her patron did not meet and only briefly “exchanged pleasantries” over email. And yet the relationship, she said, “really did feel significant to me — not necessarily in monetary value, but in the knowledge that the work that I was doing wasn’t insular, and the people who were reading it weren’t just librarians in New England.”

It may seem incredible that a benefactor would simply drop from the sky like this. But Ms. Coe’s experience is emblematic of a shift in how some arts enthusiasts, from wealthy individuals to grant-making foundations, are relating to creators. They are moving away from merely collecting and consuming art and toward a model reminiscent of the Renaissance, when royal houses provided room, board, materials and important professional connections to talented artists of the day.

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