How is an Art Patron different from a Gallery Consumer?

October 11th, 2006

The difference is evident in the artworks (e.g. paintings) that they buy.

An art patron:

  • causes an artwork to be made that would not otherwise exist
  • has a direct influence on the content of the artwork (and thus on the creative process itself)

In contrast, a gallery consumer:

  • selects a ready-made artwork
  • has little or no impact on the creative process

Anyone with money can buy a ready-made artwork. But to be an art patron requires more than that. Besides money, an art patron must have

  • a good idea of what the artwork should be about
  • discernment to select the best artist for the job
  • patience and persistence to deal with problems, delays, and drama that accompany any serious artistic project

Being an art patron is difficult. It is something of a lost art in itself.

The gallery myth

Art is sold in galleries along with a myth:

Art should be created for the sake of art.

This phrase is inherently meaningless. A painting is an inanimate object. The person who buys it does the appreciating.

The gallery myth runs counter to the interests of both the artist and the buyer. This is evident when one considers the economics of making art.

When an artist works for a patron, the goal is to please a real person, and get paid for it. This is a well-defined goal. It gives the artist a focus for creativity, and the assurance that creativity will be rewarded.

When and artist creates works to sell in a gallery, the goal is to please an imaginary person, a stranger who might buy a picture. How does one please an imaginary person? This goal is not well-defined. Creative energy gets wasted in guesswork. The artist, through uncertainty, makes many pictures — hoping some of them will sell.

Galleries incline the artist to a mass-production approach. Mass production is fine for blue-jeans. It is inefficient for artwork made by an individual, where the goal is to be creative and produce something unique and of high quality.

I believe that the gallery myth is a good part why painting has fallen into such a sorry state: the link between the artist and buyer is broken by the gallery. This alters the economic relationship and puts the artist into an awkward mode of production.

And of course, the buyer, in the role of gallery consumer, must settle for something not made specifically him or her.

Escaping economics?

Is it impossible for an artist to create what he or she really wants to create? Must painting be done either for a real patron, or for an imaginary customer?

Of course there is an alternative: an artist can paint for himself — if he can afford the time to do so. He is then his own patron. He does not paint “for the sake of art”, but for his own sake. Perhaps this is the best way to make great art.

And yet, there are some problems with an artist being his own patron. The artist gains creative freedom, but at a price. A regular patron can provide meaningful constraints in the form of:

  • specifications for subject matter
  • deadlines
  • payment

These three constraints are lost when an artist acts as his own patron. The purpose and content of the work can continually change or evolve. The painting may never be finished. The artist cannot meaningfully pay himself for his work. He spends his time, he gets a picture in the end if he is lucky. But there is no money involved.

If the artist has the money to be able to afford to paint for pleasure, he also can afford to spend his money for easier forms of pleasure — like vacations. Thus, a rich artist will have a lot of distractions from the hard task of painting — and good painting is very, very difficult. A poor artist, on the other hand, will starve if he spends too much time acting as his own patron.

If the goal of making an artwork is to produce something that will satisfy a buyer, then the artist/patron relationship, unhindered by the gallery, can be the best way to fulfill this goal. Being an art patron is not easy, of course. But who said art should be easy? Whereas the gallery consumer makes a selection, the art patron is involved in expression. Here is the ultimate difference; the artwork will reflect this.

(I would like to get critical feed-back on this piece)
first posted 28 March 2006

. . .

19 Responses to “How is an Art Patron different from a Gallery Consumer?”

  1. Candy Minx Says:

    Thi sia lot to chew on…and I think both of these scenarios would be terrific, a gallery support and vehicle for artists and patrons. Theres room for both! But…our culture is lacking a passion, Karl.

    Any of these roles are built on passion and love for art. It would have to occur organically…and through education or how one was raised. I remember my family talking about art. I came froma military family, we didn’t have any money…but my parents did what they could and had a lot of imagination for decorating the house, through moving, garage sales and collecting old furniture and refinishing etc etc. And we had all kinds of stuff on the walls…from antique carpets to a print of Gaugain to persian ashtrays decorating the joint. I remember my grandmother and parents talking about the art prints, or the odd things they found in second hand stores. I reemmber them having narratives and relationships with their objects. We also went to galleries all the time.

    It has to be a natural grassroots kind of passion.

    Our art programs in schools are jokes half the time. Little time or energy on viaual narratives and appreciation in schools.

    And the last thing consumers spend money on, is art…always the car, the tv, the appliances…and then often the decor or art for the walls is a last resort and factory painting from “the Brick” or some such wareheouse for furniture.

    I don’t know, I don’t think an artist cares who buys their art…or if it was a gallery sold or a patron…and I suspect different personalities would respond differently to a patron etc.

    I must think about this some more…but it is an awesome post, good work! Thanks Karl!

  2. David Says:

    It’s an interesting idea, Karl. It does certainly replicate, to some extent, the Cennini-era business model we’ve been discussing.

    Back then the main patrons were royalty and the Pope. I guess modern-day equivalents would be corporations and the occasionally very rich individual. For large-scale works, that is. For smaller things of course there would be a broader pool of potential patrons.

    Back when I was doing realistic figurative work, I had quite a number of commissions, including one very large one, and the experience was very positive. In pretty much all cases it involved using my patrons’ kids as models in the dreamscape types of images I was painting at the time. So for representational work this is certainly an option. I never looked at this as the main part of my work, I always focused on having gallery shows, but I was able to paint things that fit right in with the other work I was doing.

    For someone doing more exploratory abstract work, as I’m doing now, this might be somewhat more difficult. But maybe not. It’s worth thinking about.

  3. david Says:

    If the artist has the money to be able to afford to paint for pleasure, he also can afford to spend his money for easier forms of pleasure — like vacations. Thus, a rich artist will have a lot of distractions from the hard task of painting — and good painting is very, very difficult. A poor artist, on the other hand, will starve if he spends too much time acting as his own patron.

    Okay, I’ve had some time to think about this, and here’s the part I disagree with.

    Someone who is born rich may never learn what it means to have to work for something, and so I agree that may be a problem. But I don’t think it’s true that someone who’s driven to make art will be less motivated just because they have money (especially if they’ve earned it). And I don’t think it can be shown that an artist who has money does less work (or lesser work) than an artist who is poor. Picasso certainly wasn’t poor, and neither is Rauschenberg. I know plenty of poor artists who lack motivation and/or do mediocre work. Also, you don’t have to be rich to have a lot of distractions. There are many people with little money who spend their free time watching tv.

    I also don’t think the availablity of easier forms of pleasure is a problem for someone who’s committed to their work. I live in Los Angeles, where there are a million things people can do to amuse themeselves. And I have a full-time, fairly decent paying job, so it’s not like I can’t afford to go to a movie or a concert, or to go play volleyball on the beach. And I do a certain amount of those things. But most nights, after working a 10-hour day, I go to my studio. And most of the day on weekends as well I’m in there working.

    As far as vacations, I usually come back from them with more ideas and enthusiasm for my work. Last spring I spent 3 weeks in Italy, and when I got back I couldn’t wait to get into the studio.

  4. Kris Shanks Says:

    Very interesting thoughts. The big drawback of the art patron model of creation is the potential for lack of inovation. I sometimes think art consumers don’t know what they want until they see it, and it takes an artist following their inner vision or wrestling with their process to create something different. I guess I’m thinking of the explosion of modern art movements that took off when artists were liberated from a system of patronage. Of course if one were to compare how science is funded vs. art, it’s easy to see that some scientists get paid to do applied research, and some are simply supported to do whatever they want with the understanding that they may come back with something really interesting. So my model art patron would provide support without expectation of particular content.

  5. Lisa Call Says:

    I started a post quoting the same line David did with just about the same objections. But then something came up and I had to leave it.

    But in addition to the money/distraction issue, I question the other 2 benefits you feel a patron provides – subject matter and deadlines.

    I don’t follow your argument that an artist is incapable of determining their own content and would need a patron to keep them on track in that area.

    Same for deadlines.

    I feel you basically paint artists to be lacking in self discipline because making art is difficult. What do you have to support this assumption other than a fallback on basic human nature? Which can be easily overcome if motivated and driven to succeed.

    I certainly feel quite capable of managing my art career from all those angles without need for external motivation, be it money, deadlines or content. Like David I work full time and I have more than enough money for nice vacations and other diversions, yet I chose to forgo these things as I would rather work in my studio, on the art I want to make, for myself.

  6. David Says:

    I don’t follow your argument that an artist is incapable of determining their own content and would need a patron to keep them on track in that area.

    I agree with this too. All the commissions I did, I came up with the content. They just told me who they wanted in the painting. Often I would come up w/ 2 or 3 concept sketches, and let the client choose one. But one of the things they came to me for in the first place was my ideas, not just my rendering ability.

    The times that someone approached me with a “great idea” that they wanted painted, I told them that there are plenty of artists that would be happy to work for them, but that it’s not what I do.

  7. Tracy Helgeson Says:

    I actually tend to avoid commissions as I don’t like to be told what to do, I am a bit cranky in that respect. I did recently paint an image that was similar to a piece that a client liked but was no longer available, but that’s about as far as I’ll go.

    If I were to accept commissions then I would be concerned about pleasing that real person, which would be very stifling to me. I prefer to paint whatever I please, and if someone happens to like it then they are liking my honest expression.

  8. karl zipser Says:

    I wanted to give a link to a discussion we had on Art News Blog after I first posted this essay Rich artist = Bad art?. The question is if money ruins an artist which relates to what we are discussing here.

    No one seems to quite agree with me, especially about the value of commissions for focusing creativity. Let me point out that Michelangelo and da Vinci were both notorious for not finishing projects unless there was a dead-line and a lot of pressure (and even then they sometimes dropped the project). Da Vinci often wrote (perhaps when testing a new quill pen) “Was anything ever finished?”

    As for Picasso, to me he is the perfect example of an artist spoiled by success. I admire his talent and early work, but I think he got lazy and made a lot of junk. The situation might be similar with Stephen King. King is a pretty good writer, but his first novel was a huge sucess, he knows everthing he writes will be a best seller . . . and I think his work suffers tremendously from that. (I’m not a Stephen King fan, but I got interested in him from his book On Writing, which is good.)

    What about my contention that galleries create a “mass-production” atmosphere?

    Lisa, I respond to your question about scientific revolutions on the original post.

  9. karl zipser Says:

    There have been great comments from artists. What about collectors? How do you feel about being catagorized as “gallery consumer”, as opposed to the more prestigious “art patron”?

    To be honest, I find it a bit comic how “collector” is considered such a great status today. What does a collector do that is impressive aside from saving art for future generations? In the past, what a person commissioned was a measure of greatness.

  10. David Says:

    Picasso I admit is a mixed bag. He produced both great work and junk over the course of his career. But he also innovated many new styles and kept working into his nineties. I’ve never had any interest in reading Stephen King so I can’t comment. For my example of why money doesn’t always = bad art let me just say this: The Beatles. (I’m not talking about the post-Beatles solo stuff, but they certainly weren’t struggling when they made Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road).

    I’m not claiming that money can’t be a distraction, but so can poverty. So can families and full-time jobs. How many talented artists have given up out of despair?

    Michelangelo and Leonardo are both examples of artists working under a patronage system, so if they had trouble finishing their work it might reveal a flaw in that system. There are many artists today showing in galleries who have plenty of motivation and complete their work. As far as deadlines, an exhibition opening is certainly a strong one, especially once the cards have been printed. I actually work best when I know I have a show coming up.

    Galleries do produce a mass-production mentality for the artists, but they go out of their way to present the work as unique and precious to the public.

    “Collectors” may in fact be “gallery consumers”, but they’re never called that. Just like galleries are never called “art stores”, even thought that’s what they are. The reason collectors are held in such high esteem by the galleries is because they are the customers. These days a “patron” is generally someone who gives millions of dollars to the ballet or to a museum. They may or may not also be a collector.

  11. Candy Minx Says:

    Wow, this discussion went wild since I was here yesterday…many great thoughts! I need to come back and think some more…!

  12. karl zipser Says:

    Hi Candy,

    It has been a great discussion, I agree. I think you made a great point that consumers are generally going to spend their money on something other than art. Your essay “I blame the artist” shows a lot of the reason for this, I think.

  13. karl zipser Says:

    It is interesting how the meaning of the word “patron” has changed from an active to a passive role. Where is the ego of the rich?

  14. Lisa Call Says:

    “What about my contention that galleries create a “mass-production” atmosphere?”

    I had to think about this question for a while and here are some thoughts in relationship to how I work.

    My approach to making art is to work in a series. Not because I think that sells (I’m not yet pursuing gallery representation – I want to just focus on developing my work for a while) but because I think this is the best way for me grow as an artist.

    Some of the work in my series is very forumulaic – and while not produced for a gallery could be considered what Carl describes as “mass production”.

    I don’t view this as a bad thing. I believe with each new piece, even if I’m not really pushing the edges, that my skill improves just a bit more. It’s about training ones eye, muscle memory, becoming an expert at the technique.

    Everyone now and then I’ll have a big “ah-ha” moment and make a big stride forward in the work. Then I’ll take that new idea and work it for a while to see where all it will lead me.

    Through repetition of similar work I believe I become a better artist. I feel this is how I can push myself to the edge and beyond. I see a lot of parallels to what we discussed on an earlier thread related to the book “The structure of the scientific revolution” – but on a smaller, single person scale.

    If I were in a patronage system of the past then I would have no control over the content of the work and would not have the opportunity to explore a subject in detail. From my point of view I believe this means I would never become as proficient as I would if I were able to control the content.

    Now I can see that there are downfalls if one does have gallery representation and one is producing a very successful series of work. It would be very hard to make a giant leap forward in a different direction. The gallery and collectors might not want to make that leap forward and so the artist is torn between the cash the growth.

    Which leads us back to Carl’s comment “He does not paint “for the sake of art”, but for his own sake. Perhaps this is the best way to make great art.”

  15. David Says:

    Where is the ego of the rich?

    Next time you go to a place where “arts patrons” hang out (museum, ballet, symphony) look at the plaques on the walls. Every wing, room and courtyard is named after someone.

  16. Susan Constanse Says:

    Hi there, I’m new to posting on your blog but have been following it over the last several weeks. I have found your essays to be thought provoking. This one is no exception.

    One thing that I didn’t see mentioned in your essay was the role of foundations and public support programs in the patronage system. I live in Pittsburgh, which has an extraordinary number of foundations that support art in all disciplines. There is a definite influence in the region on what kinds of art are presented because of this patronage. Since the foundations are generally supporting issues beyond the expression of art, what they support reflects those values too.

    For instance, numbers are a large part of how the foundations judge the effectiveness of supported programs. Especially numbers that reflect the attendance of diverse populations. Hence, every presenting organization slates a show that will draw out that population.

    Another type of project that the foundations tend to support are those that otherwise might not be seen because the content is too challenging for the general consumer.

    Both of these types of projects are worthwhile and I am not maligning the foundation’s efforts to expand the offerings in the arts to our community. However, because the projects are generally geared to small demographics within the community, it has served to alienate a large part of the public and has also impacted the commercial arts negatively.

  17. karl zipser Says:


    Your point is important. A rich patron commissioning a work for his or her own pleasure will find an artist to make something that is appealing, at least to that patron. Much of the great art in Western civilizazion was produced in this mode, as mundane as it seems. If a foundation supports art that no one really wants, it is not surprising that the results please few. I think foundations would do better to give money away to individuals for the express purpose of buying art. I wrote a piece along these lines which I will try to find and put on-line. Thanks.
    14 Oct.

  18. karl zipser Says:


    If you ever go to Siena, check out the main art museum for insight into mass-production artwork in the context of the 14th century patronage system.

    Artists working on commission often explore the same theme over and over, because that is what patrons can see in existing work.

    The key difference between the mass production of the commissioned work and that for the gallery is that in the latter case, there is no certainty that the work will sell.

    Earlier you commented that you see no need for deadlines or contracts to push you to finish your work. Are you able to pursue a major work for six months, with certainty that there will be a buyer? And without changing directions (which is natural, because you grow in the process of working)?

    Artist don’t need deadlines to paint a straight forward picture, but if you think of doing a major work over a long time period, a little external pressure can be a big help.

  19. karl zipser Says:


    The rich used to have their portraits painted by great artists. Even ordinary businessmen were immortalized in this way. Your comment shows how times change. Today’s “art patrons” are content with paying to have their name written on a wall. But maybe that is for the best. In the department where I worked at MIT, there was a terrible portrait of the couple who had funded the building I worked in.