From Athens and Rome to Rockefeller and corporate sponsors

Colin Tweedy, chairman of Business and the Arts International, traces the history of patronage

5 min read

Art and money have been joined at the hip since our early ancestors left their caves. Art has always acquired value and, since means of exchange were in use, people wanted to own and experience art. Money passed hands and patrons patronised the artists.

Geneticists have even argued that our brains are hard-wired to use art to attract a mate. A former chairman of Arts & Business called the arts “conspicuous consumption” that showed your value, just as the peacock’s tail attracts the female. We may not support the arts now to attract a partner, but many of us support the arts because we love art or because we want to show how rich, powerful or even tasteful we are.

This is the position of the patron or donor and historians look to the Medici in Renaissance Florence as examples of the first great patrons. But it is to the age of classical Athens and Rome that the first artistic patrons can be identified. Monuments to patrons have been found in Athens and Gaius Maecenas, the friend and adviser of Emperor Augustus in Rome, has given his name as a byword, in many European languages, for a patron of the arts.

But how relevant are these historical examples to the business sponsor of today? Maecenas and the Medici were both wealthy, they loved art and they loved using their patronage to show how rich and powerful they were.

As governments worldwide have come under increased pressure to cut arts support, they have looked not to the great noble families or the Church for funding, but to the corporate sector

The Medici were bankers and traders of global importance who helped transform Florence into the financial capital of the world. Art to them was an affirmation of their power, their status and their generosity that would also ensure their place in Heaven. Art and money may go together, but so do art and religion, and some of the greatest patrons were the popes and cardinals of the Catholic Church. No history of Michelangelo would be complete without talking about his great patron Pope Julius II, whose style is a long way from that of the present Pope Francis.

I would argue that the motivations of these great patrons in history can be related to the motivations of modern business. Business wants to be seen to be successful. If businessmen and women have funds to support the arts, we can assume they are successful, even though history can relate tales of near-bankrupt companies acting as sponsors to garnish an unjustified image.

Through time, one by one, the great patrons faded from the scene, but their great legacies continue to this day. The kings, princes and popes were replaced by the first great corporate bosses, sometimes called “robber barons”, such as Frick, Carnegie, Mellon, Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Morgan in the United States, and Wallace, Tate and Burrell in the UK. Were they still patrons in the old sense? Well, yes, but they were also the first great corporate sponsors. These great figures in history were not fettered by a donations committee or a marketing department and were able to take decisive action themselves.

The man who first moved from one tradition to another was the present David Rockefeller, now in his 90s. As chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank from the 1960s, he commissioned artists to create remarkable artworks for the bank in New York and, in 1968, he formed the Business Committee of the Arts in New York that was to be the model for Arts & Business, launched as the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts (ABSA) in 1976 in the UK.

Rockefeller, in his opening address, called upon businesses in America to create a “cultural renaissance” by supporting the arts. Lord Goodman, the founding chairman of ABSA, made a similar appeal to British businesses and called upon business to be a “court of final appeal” – he was a lawyer after all – so that when an artist is turned down by the state, there is always the possibility for others to help.

ABSA was the first such association founded outside the US whose sole purpose was to promote business support for the arts. Why the UK and was it successful in its task? The UK could be seen as the bridge between the dominance of private funding in the US and the dominance of state funding in continental Europe.

The UK and ABSA, renamed Arts & Business in 1999, has become the model for not only other arts and business organisations to be set up across the world, but also increasingly since the Lehman Brother’s crash, a model for other governments to adopt. When ABSA was set up, annual sponsorship from business for the arts was running at less than £10 million; that figure was £134 million in 2010 and total private support was £686 million.

As governments worldwide have come under increased pressure to cut arts support, they have looked not to the great noble families or the Church for funding, but to the corporate sector. Though support for the arts is dwarfed by sports sponsorship, companies like Fiat, Unilever, IBM, Samsung, American Express, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Bank of America, Montblanc, Prada and BP, for example, are for ever associated as business sponsors of the arts.

We have come a long way from those peacocks showing off their fine tail feathers, and the Medici and their Leonardos, but as long as the arts are nourished and businesses make people money, the story continues.

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