Anyone who has been to Florence or Rome, or who stayed awake during the Art History class slide shows, has seen the splendor that was created during the height of Europe's golden age for artists. The 15th and 16th century in Europe was awash with money and princes and aggrandizement. The work was bold and new and demanded to be seen and discussed.
Ever wanting to best their peers, the elite hired hired artists, kept them on the payroll and commissioned grand work that still takes our breath away 500 years later. I haven't set foot inside the Medici Chapels since 1982, but given the chance I will gush on for 20 minutes about the detail and beauty and exquisite workmanship of the floor-to-ceiling mosaics.
It was an era of full employment for artists. Patrons paid, artists created.
Not that all was good, of course. Your patron had to like the work you created for him. Many a tortured artist was forced to produce pedestrian art to please the master. If not, you might be discharged -- permanently.
Diego Rivera experienced the pain of the displeased Patron in the '30s when Rockefeller destroyed the commissioned mural because it was too revolutionary. Rockefeller knew who Rivera was, right? Did he think that Diego would paint a mural of the benign industrialist? Or maybe dogs playing poker?
There are some who believe that we have a patron system in place right now: it's called the University. Artists teach and produce work. Some are no more satisfied with the new Patron system, than with the old. Though few art professors lose their heads if they get a negative review.
So here's my challenge. Let's bring back the Patronage system. Let's be active in seeking out matches for artists and collectors, companies and institutions. Let's be generous with our knowledge of each others' work. Let's encourage businesses to take down the anonymous, boring, beige mixed media abstracts and pretend-watercolors of sailboats, and replace them with work that will make people stop and look -- and want to come back to the business to look again.
The Patronage system filled 15th century Europe with beauty and majesty and work worth of comment. It's time we do the same in 2009 everywhere.