Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ways of Looking at Patronage

Was reading this article that I found on the Poetry Foundation website.

I don't know that there's really any economic benefit in not taxing artists since half of the artists I know either get so little money for their work or are paid under the table. Maybe it would be a nice gesture toward publicly acknowledging the value of artists. An empty gesture, but a nice one.

The idea has me thinking, though. I've often wondered how a system of patronage could be brought back into vogue. I'm not talking about government or foundation grants, which are largely handed out via convoluted, extensive, and impersonal application processes that have less to do with the merit of the art than the bullshitting capabilities of the artist. Instead, I'm thinking along the lines of a more personalized practice that focuses on the cultural cache that well-off people might find in surrounding themselves with artists and art in which they are genuinely interested. Of course, that assumes that the well-off people would have to care about or even know about art. It also assumes that this practice isn't already going on. The latter may very well be true. Maybe I'm just not hanging out in the right crowds. In my circle, the artist-to-wealthy person ratio is about 700-1. The very idea of having a wealthy patron is like a fairy tale. Or an elaborate joke: A poet walks into a bar and sits down next to Tom Brokaw, Huey Lewis, and David Letterman...

And really, if I'm honest with myself, wealthy people make me itch. I grew up on the periphery of wealth and never quite reconciled myself to its representatives. In my experience, the people with less wealth have always been more generous--especially when it comes to supporting the arts. For instance, when we put together an art auction for Cutbank earlier this year, the people who spent the most money weren't professors or well-off community members (very few of whom even bothered to show up). Rather, the broke graduate students and fellow artists were the ones making donations and bidding on the art. Just like Halloween when I was a kid: The people big, gaudy houses were the ones that handed out pennies or sacks of candy corn (if they even bothered to open their french doors to a bunch of bused-in kids who weren't from that side of the neighborhood) while the people in the humbler homes on my side of the neighborhood handed out Hershey's miniatures, candied apples, and homemade gift bags.

When I look back on the people who have offered me financial support for my education and my art, they aren't glamorous fast-lane types. They are the people who look exactly like me, or exactly as I will look in 10 or 20 years. Like my partner's mother, who did my taxes this year free of charge and taught me that I can write off things like contest entries, travel to writing conferences, paper, pens, computer hardware and software, and postage. Or my friend Katie who, when I was living in Seattle without a job or health insurance, offered to pay for my health care (I didn't take her up on it, but what matters is that she offered and that I knew, if things got dire, I had somewhere to turn). Or Patrick, a fellow writer I met in Russia who found out that I have editing experience and hooked me up with a freelancing gig for his company. Or my aunt, who sends me a check every month without fail, whether I like it or not, because she thinks my education is important and that I shouldn't have to go into debt while I pursue it. I don't know how I came to be surrounded by all this generosity. In a sense, I do have patrons. A whole legion of them.

When I first moved to Seattle, I met a wonderful couple, Frank and Suzan, through my former boss. They are about 15-20 years older than I am and they didn't know me from Adam, but they invited me to dinners, introduced me to their friends, and generally helped me get set up in a daunting city where I knew no one. One day, when I was feeling particularly low (still without a job, still waiting for my life to take off), I lamented to Suzan that I hoped there would be a time when I could return some of their generosity in kind. And she told me how she had been in my position many times and that there had always been some older person there to help her get her footing. She also told me that she knew I would eventually be established and comfortable and that, when that day should arrive, I would use my position to help some other struggling young person.

I hope that comes to pass. I feel like I will have arrived when I can be the one to offer some sort of stability, instead of the one who is constantly asking for it. Maybe the solution doesn't lay (lie?) with any official entity at all, but rather with individuals making conscious choices to support each other within whatever means they have.

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