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Art and its patrons: history shows a difficult relationship

The issue of patronage — the receiving of it and the rejection of it — has been much aired in the last month. It is also deeply rooted in our beginnings, probably from the time some Sumerian bureaucrat decided which manufacturer would supply the palace with clay tablets and reed styluses.

Over 4000 years on, imagine you are the painter Jacques-Louis David, and fairly flexible about your allegiances. That is to say, you voted for the death of King Louis XVI and you’re a friend of Robespiere, but still find yourself able to paint the dazzling and jewel-laden Coronation of Emperor Napoleon. David knew which side his baguette was buttered.

If you were Leonardo da Vinci, you might have to rely on something other than the commission to make table decorations for a Sforza family wedding in 15th century Milan — perhaps the invitation by the banker, Zanobi del Giocondo, to paint his wife La Giaconda with her enigmatic smile. When 14-year-old Leonardo arrived in Florence in 1466, a building boom fuelled by a new law offering a 40-year exemption from local taxes to anyone building a palazzo was well underway. Prominent families like the Medicis, the Rucellai, the Tuornabuoni, the Pazzi and the Benci were as busy as bees. Soon Leonardo would be too.

At present, the debacle surrounding the resignation of Transfield, the principle “patron” of Sydney’s Biennale, might yet mean a pyrrhic victory for the participating artists (perhaps the Australia Council too), some of whom retreated from the event as a protest against Transfield’s links to immigration detention centres. These events prompt some rumination on the long association Transfield has with this biannual international event.

Co-incidentally, when Franco Belgiorno-Nettis arrived in Australia in 1951, he knew about incarceration. He had spent three years in a prisoner of war camp in India after serving in Africa in World War II. By 1956 he and a colleague had established Transfield, the engineering and construction firm which would become the largest in the southern hemisphere. In 1959 he established the Transfield Prize of 1000 pounds — the most generous art prize in Australia at that time. By 1969 it was worth $5000 and James Fitzsimmons, the international art critic and editor of Art International, was here to judge it. The prize went to Ron Robertson-Swann, for a colour-field painting called Sydney Summer. In the following decade the largesse of Belgiorno-Nettis would be transferred to another art world first — an international biennale in Australia.

Long-term facts are occasionally inconvenient to the art-world mindset. It was a Liberal prime minister, Harold Holt, who announced in November 1967 that the country would soon have an Australian Council for the Arts, to be chaired by Dr Herbert C. “Nugget” Coombs. It was the first time in Australia’s history that a generous arts initiative was a targeted election policy.

As the following two decades ticked over, more and more of this money went not to artists but to bureaucracies which grew like hydras, and suffered only occasional erosions in times of fiscal tight-fistedness. Surprisingly, while many in these protected bureaucracies railed against the comfortable conservatism of the liberal government and their antipathy towards bohemians and layabouts, the artists were as busy as bees. So were the commercial galleries and the art dealers.

So why does Australia need these art fairs? Expanding bureaucracies need to justify themselves — and their funding. They see themselves as central players in a many-tiered phenomenon. The state and federal governments fund the art schools and universities which have expanded to accommodate wave after wave of young hopefuls who plan to call themselves artists. Thus each year around Australia, they will turn out thousands of painters, printmakers, sculptors, ceramicists, filmmakers, installation artists and jewellers.

This same government (and increasingly large private companies) will create hundreds of grants, competitions and prizes — even venues for the display of works. They will fund artists to take part in overseas exhibitions and take up residencies in various cultural centres; there will be grants to artists to help them establish their practices.

The next tier of the art world pivots on those who hope to make a living in the art world: gallery owners, auction houses, art advisers, brokers, publicists, lawyers and accountants acting for artists, and assorted media types who devote themselves to creating a persona or profile for their artists and their milieu, in an inattentive world which is curiously attuned to transience.

The final tier is made up of historians, curators, critics, editors and publishers who are responsible for creating a more durable and considered profile of artists and art movements. Their job is assumed to be disinterested and at arms length, but it doesn’t always work that way — nor need it, except where the historians are concerned.

None of the above need biennales to function or thrive.

The Sydney Biennale is increasingly flavoured by a theme park or treasure-hunt mentality, and this year is accompanied by a patronising set of preparatory talks to teachers and other willing victims, to make sure they interpret the spirit of the event correctly. This is undoubtedly because most of the works shown in festivals around the world have detached themselves from most streams of art practice. Painting, sculpture and other traditionally craft-based art works have been eclipsed by the ephemeral, the gimmicky and the sensational. These tend to be called “installations” — unhappy word, that.

The works, while dependant on new technologies which we are all familiar with, are intended to be esoteric. When people are confused or baffled by them they are dismissed as “rednecks” and “uncultured boors”. No one wants to be viewed in that light, so the great silence descends. We can anticipate, however, that voices are raised in some quarters, and that these voices might be discussing geese and golden eggs.

Madame de Pompadour (patron to Voltaire, amongst others), portrait byFrançois Boucher

9 responses to “Art and its patrons: history shows a difficult relationship

  1. Patricia has failed to discern between the various Transfields – the public services corporation, Transfield Services Ltd, holds the contract at Manus Island. The private company, Transfield Holdings, is co-chaired by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis. The family also has a charitable trust which supports artistic endeavours in many ways.

    By failing to recognise the distinction between Transfield Services Ltd, in which the Belgiorno-Nettis family are not board members and are not directors, and the other Transfield entities, the author has failed, as have so many others in this saga, to demonstrate how misguided are the actions of the small, noisy group of boycotters.

    Their true target was Transfield Services Ltd, not the Belgiorno-Nettis controlled entities. The boycotters should be thoroughly ashamed.

    Patricia Anderson has perpetuated a myth, which is that Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is personally responsible for the goings-on in refugee camps. He is not.

  2. Great article….
    I would add the double standard of the artists who said they would not be part of it and now are….even though the major sponsor the govt who set up the centers are still part of it

  3. Also we must understand the very same artists who are showcased in these big sprawling exhibitions are also withers workers in the small cosseted Australian contemporary art industry AND/ OR the very lecturers who persist in perpetuating the whole mindset. So here we are singling out artists for somehow special treatment but they themselves are part of the problem. Add to this the far too cozy with the same set of collectors and sponsors. One Biennale artist recently went to far to say how nice a man Luca Belgiorno-Nettis (I’m sure he is) but it showed also who was at his dinner parties. Also this same artist teaches art in a fairly secure job at a major College AND shows at two of the most powerful commercial galleries in Australia who the have also strong but perhaps dubious links to certain curators and collectors who then have the cousins or husbands as Directors of Boards of powerful contemporary art institutions who then also are high up in the Government quangos set up with $5 million to woo even more private and corporate tax deductible ‘gifts’ but also to sell the same art by the same artists in the same galleries too….it’s all VERY COZY and everyone knows it!

  4. Yay! Excellent text and excellent comments. Yay! …And I’m not being cynical with my Yays…Yay! I was always certain that there were many individuals without a platform were in Australia itching to speak. I was just one and it was just logical that there were many many more. Just how could they have a voice? It’s obvious that the actions of the Biennale 9 were media savvy AND heartfelt and most importantly effective but also that the artists relied on social media as much as the mainstream press. Forums such as this also helped a lot too. These comments pages will overtake the govt funded magazines such as Eyeline and Broadsheet and Art & Australia etc because ideas can be worked on almost instantly and many views can be shared. More ‘conservative’ voices should feel encouraged to participate. Art is a combat zone as well as unsecular church for contemplation. Leonardo once wrote a famous letter of introduction to a Prince seeking employment where he touts his prowess in designing war machines and engineering etc right at the end in the last line he says something like: “Oh and yes I can also make portraits that may be of use” …something like that. So even Leonardo what he had to do to survive. However as is said above we live in a far different age in terms of the status of the individual although there are always people in government who want to take away those hard won powers developed in the West (since I suppose the Magna Carta). In fact we are still evolving this process and it takes many turns, some backwards. For instance now governments want to wind back advances in the welfare state (not unreasonable as they are probably unaffordable in the long term) BUT attacking doctors in public health is hardly productive. NSA tactics are widely applauded by many Western governments, including ours, so we all know we must be ever wary of government. This is where large parts of the Right and the Left agree. And triple Yay! A whole industry has developed from government funded arts policy. I have benefitted no doubt (although I am always in debt!) but I have also been often put in my place by these arts public servants that I have wondered what the hell I was doing in the business, it was soul destroying. God when I look back on the attitudes of so many people with almost no knowledge of art who went off to be secretaries elsewhere or worse are still in the same job 30 years later! No joke, Australia is so small they have nowhere to go. The same people just play a game of deck chairs on the Titanic. If only it were the one being built by Clive! It’d be more Fun.

    And finally many have thought for a long time that there were too many art schools in Australia who teach the same brand of bog standard Contemporary Art thought and speak. One senior lecturer told me in his institution the kids do Fine Art in the hope of getting into the competitive IT section so they can do Gaming as that is where the real money is. Good on them! I wouldn’t teach art like the art schools teach them at present. I would begin with an intensive course in basic economics side by side with art making. I would stress the power of knowledge and truly creative thinking. Art schools always reverse the creative equation. Why? Because the creative act is simply not bureaucratic, it’s almost impossible to quantify and therefore in the antithesis of the bookkeeping mentality of Government waged art people. So the kids are stifled from the very beginning! I mentored some 3rd and 4th years at COFA and they were truly vexed at why they had to write their academic papers. When the art schools were made into Uni courses the only way to quantify the success of such a move was to add an artist’s ‘thesis’ on their work to the grading process. This almost sent the students I saw batty. It’s good for them to be self critical but I swear the best papers were marked down due to them not being academically correct! It was crazy, the college was encouraging the students to act and work in this bureaucratic way. No wonder we get such boring art now. They should just exhibit their papers. I suggested that the students should be encouraged to hire an academic editor to help them, they should do this en masse to get a cheaper rate. But anyway this is the reason we have all this boring contemporary art. The students are told to do this and then told to go off and install at MCA etc to start climbing the greasy pole up the curators backsides! It’s a horrible horrible way to teach art and it must be stopped. We must insist that many more voices be heard in Australian art and not the trance inducing committees set up by public servants to rubber stamp decisions already made. Yes Minister should be on continuous rotation in the foyers of every Government art gallery to remind us all how the art they are about to encounter got there!

  5. I didn’t find the article bitter but simply adding perspectives to the controversy. I hardly find Beethoven’s change of dedication, due to his disappointment in Napoleon a radical act. As for Biennales being different to art fairs this is true but in reality this is only by degree and not kind.Showcases are always marketing opportunities, whether privately or publicly funded- read John Richardson for some insight into the toe curling ethics of the art world generally. The commercial representatives of the artists will be busy working with this as a marketing opportunity and so they should, nothing wrong with that at all. Someone always holds the purse strings, once the church or the aristocracy or the plutocrats, as you remark, but this has just partly morphed into funding by art councils and art administrators who in reality are just another small cabal of elites who have the same foibles (all be it for different reasons) as the former, they still control the ‘who’ and the ‘what’. Hence we tend to see the claustrophobic offerings, re-gurgitated with deja vu similarity, in Biennials around the world. Matt Gleason’s recent review of the Whitney Biennial showcases this in a humorous but telling way. Artists will make work without a Biennale and artists can showcase work without a Biennale. Artists who take the King’s shilling as it were, can never be truly independent, though the artists who did withdraw are to be commended for acting on their beliefs, though I am sure many who stayed were acting in good faith, on a differing set, some others of course probably couldn’t give a rat’s arse- such is the world. I would note that no art’s administrator, in various public institutions nor the artistic director of the current Biennial, though public supporting the sentiments and one actively encouraging artists to boycott, offered their resignation in protest

  6. Dear Patricia, I sympathise with some of your feelings about the contemporary art-world, but I feel that your bitterness about the present and nostalgia for days gone by have somewhat clouded your judgement and perspective on ‘long-term facts’. Thankfully artists and citizens now have more freedom than when they were totally subject to the despotic power of the Church, aristocracy and plutocracy. In part this is due to the existence of public funding, which in Australia was indeed ‘announced’ by a Liberal PM but was the fruit of many years’ work by socially progressive individuals like Nugget Coombs and my mother Ros Bower. In any case, throughout history just as many artists have acted according to principle as self-interest. As a counter-example to David, consider Beethoven who on hearing of his revolutionary hero Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor changed the dedication of the Eroica to read ‘to the memory of a great man’. In the same way, the historical sufferings and achievements of Franco Belgiorno Nettis in no way legitimate subsequent decisions by his family company and successors. In general, artists are moral and political beings as well as commercial or indeed creative ones. As a writer on art I’m sure you appreciate the difference between doing what you love, being paid for it and being comfortable with the circumstances: sometimes all three happily coincide; sometimes we have to make compromises; and sometimes hard choices, on a case-by-case basis. As for Biennales: they are not the same as ‘art fairs’. The latter are commercial opportunities to buy and sell work, and artists and dealers generally pay a fee to participate; the former are generally by invitation, and their primary purpose is to show work to the public, not sell it: hence the necessity of public funding. I broadly agree with your critique of the three-tiered hierarchy of funding and sponsorship, presenters and mediators, but feel you’ve left out the most important two tiers: artists and audiences, both of whom have generally been left out of this debate, and who are free to choose what they want to make or see, where they want to work and where the money comes from.

    1. Well the money the govt pays comes from me and you
      If the protest was to humiliate Nettis well it worked…The fact is that most Australia support the current policy as much as they hate detention centers.
      I hate air pollution…stop QANTAS DONORS
      I hate seam gas…..stop agl,bhp…etc etc etc
      when do you stop.
      These artist have double standards…they are will to take from the govt but not from private industry
      Ps Mr belgiorno-Nettis was the first person to pay for my artwork when I was a student…never met him again and he sure as hell go publicity out of it


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