From Donors to Patrons: A Conversation
From Donors to Patrons: A Conversation

From Donors to Patrons: A Conversation

Recovering patronage as partnership.

Scan the list of donor levels at events and annual reports: among the gold, silver, and bronze designations you will notice a category that is trending. It is the category of “patron.” While it has become simply another indicator like the others for how much one has donated to the event or organization, there was a time when the word “patron” meant something more significant. For instance, a “patron saint” was a protector and advocate of individuals, professions, even entire communities. When a city in the Middle Ages grew to prominence it often declared its status by obtaining the relics of a famous saint from another city. Being a patron was the mark of a unique relationship. Today, for the right amount of money one can be a patron. And that amount might not even be significant. (One can be a patron of the Society of Gynecological Surgeons for just $1.00.) I am concerned that true patrons are becoming an endangered species. This is not an argument for elitism but for an understanding of the commitment and calling of genuine patronage.

In the same way a hobbyist is different from a craftsman or an earned doctorate from one that is honorary, there is an important distinction between donors and patrons. I would like to see that restored. Perhaps the first step is clarifying the differences by talking with people practicing the art of patronage.

A donor could be giving out of benevolence or mild interest, whereas a patron wants to participate and help guide the enterprise.

To do that, I called Roberta Green Ahmanson and we had a conversation about what it means to be considered a patron and what the role of the patron is—not just in the arts but in every discipline.

Fred Smith: Let’s jump right into it. What is a patron?

Roberta  Green Ahmanson: A patron is not only one giving financial support but who gives influential support, favour, encouragement to a person, institution, work, or art. From ancient times to the present, governments, institutions both secular and sacred, and individuals have been patrons of the arts. They have done it to deify themselves, to entrench social order, to maintain or increase status, to feel good, to benefit others, to foster the art they love, to speculate on investments, to absolve themselves of guilt over how their money was made, to find identity, to win honour, to gain heaven, and sometimes even to glorify God.

FS: To find identity?

RGA: Yes. For instance, the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art was the first organization in the country to devote itself to an ongoing program of changing exhibitions of recent art in all its diversity. It was a significant departure from the traditional museum’s taste and practice. In his 1929 book, Patron Saints: Five Rebels Who Opened America to a New Art, 1928–1943, Nicholas Fox Weber writes, “That need to affront some people and win the approval of others underlies a great deal of adventurous arts patronage. Rather than acquiesce to the judgments and power of the majority, the patron has chosen to join a smaller group. That need for self-definition can be more of a determining factor than is pure aesthetic response. It is all part of establishing how one fits in the world.

FS: But it’s more than a kind of narcissistic search for self, isn’t it? It’s not a self-centered fascination with being considered a patron. It’s also more than investing in art for the return. There is something deeper in the relationship with the artist, I would assume.

RGA: Absolutely! It may be that people don’t like the sound of the word “patron”—it sounds aristocratic, snooty, above others. “Investor” sounds more with it, contemporary, and less upper class. Many people like to think they are looking for a different kind of return when they invest in art, but I still think it leads to the wrong attitude. Patrons put their money and themselves out there and hope and work for the best. You are doing it for the love and joy of the work first, not for the return. A donor could be giving out of benevolence or mild interest, whereas a patron wants to participate and help guide the enterprise. A patron has almost a parental feel to it in terms of care, love, and truth-telling. A patron has more stake in the game. They don’t lose interest so easily.

FS: I like the quality of not losing interest easily. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece for the New Yorker titled “Late Bloomers,” in which he makes the point that late bloomers are not the same as late starters. People think of late bloomers as late starters. “They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re 50, so of course they achieve late in life. But that’s not quite right. Late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good at something until late in their careers. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure. Prodigies advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers require forbearance and blind faith. A late bloomer needs a patron. If you are the type of creative mind who starts without a plan and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level. His or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories.”

That’s what a good patron does. You can see. You work to look at the big picture. You look to see where there are needs and who has the talent to fill them.

I think that’s what we would both describe as an essential difference between donors and patrons. Patrons are in a unique relationship with both the art and the artist. It is not only supporting the art but, at times, being co-creators, critics, and in the original sense of the word, advocates. That is why not every artist wants a patron and would prefer having major donors.

RGA: We had an experience with a university that might illustrate the role of healthy critic. We consider ourselves to be both patrons and partners. We were working on a project with a university, and they wanted us to fund everything up front with no specifics. They treated us like the kind of donors who just want to put our name on a building (which we never do) rather than being a catalyst for programming. Everything about that was wrong! We are not donors! So, as a patron, I took it seriously to explain to them why this was wrong. I pointed out to them that for the university, whose purpose is the furtherance of knowledge and understanding and contributing to culture, that their purpose is not served by the buildings but by the success of the project in fulfilling their mission. That is why donors want to support an institution even without getting involved because they believe you are furthering your mission. That’s what you are there to do. As patrons, what we are doing is giving you proof that you are doing what you are set up to do, and therefore we are your partners in furthering knowledge and advancing culture, but we are not donors. Suddenly, the scales dropped from their eyes and we were partners. It was a wonderful thing to see. It was good because I had to define what we do and what they do and bring them back to their own purpose for existing. Their purpose isn’t to build buildings and put people’s names on them. Their purpose is to add to knowledge and advance culture in positive ways. There are lots of good donors, and we need them, but institutions sometimes need reminding of their original mission. That is something a patron can do through their relationship that goes far deeper than financial contributions.

FS: So, in a sense, you are not only a protector and guardian of the artist but helping the institution itself protect its mission. In that particular case, I think you had identified a person with talent. Is that part of the role of a patron? Not just to support established work?

RGA: Yes, good patrons love to identify talent, but a patron believes in somebody once they have identified their talent. You recognize the talent and encourage the person to develop and go with it and to contribute it to the world because it is a gift, from the point of view of a Christian as the patron. It’s a gift of God to the world to be nurtured. It’s my gift to be able to see it and to help. That’s what a patron does.

A patron is someone who can identify people with talent and the drive to work and then help and encourage them. Things that would not happen do happen because of a patron with the ability to see. I think that’s what a good patron does. You can see. You work to look at the big picture. You look to see where there are needs and who has the talent to fill them. That’s the basis of our philanthropy. Like right now, Howard is deeply involved in the housing crisis in California. He’s involved in it politically because there are vested interests that don’t want to build. It means that the people who clean your toilet or serve your food in the restaurant have to live two hours away from where they work. Howard is deeply concerned about that. He’s looking for people who are working on positive solutions to that out in the political realm as well as people in the building realm.

FS: While there are many who are suited for, and content with, being donors, there are perhaps donors who would like to be patrons in the way you have talked about it. How would you advise someone interested in the art and craft of patronage?

RGA: The first thing I would do is ask them what they are interested in. What are the things that animate their thinking? What are the things in the world that concern them? What do they read about the most? What do they see? Then I would encourage them to study that more as well as encourage them to see who works in that area. What kind of work do they do? Is there something that isn’t being done that you now understand because you’ve thought and you’ve read and you’ve maybe travelled and you’ve talked to people in the field and you can see a gap or a need? That is the hard work you first have to do. Educate yourself and become competent in your particular interest. A good patron has skin in the game. You care about it, for whatever reason. I would say it is a calling.

FS: What are the risks of being a patron? There is a dark side, isn’t there?

RGA: You get too close.

FS: You have said that artists describe the relationship as often taking the course of a love affair, ranging from “deep gratitude” to “powerful resentment.” Their patrons became their friends. But their success depended on the strength and longevity of those relationships. The danger for the artist is to be locked into a particular style or work just to please the patron. What you seem to be describing is the relationship of co-creators. You are not mandating every detail, but you are not giving the artist free rein. It’s a delicate balance.

RGA: The most common criticisms of the relationship are the arbitrary demands of the patron both on the time of the artist and on the kind of work the artist is asked to do. As well, if you get too close to a person and they become dependent on you, then you’ve got a problem. To prevent that you have to watch boundaries, but that’s true in all of life, I’ve found. An organization can think: if all else fails and push comes to shove, they’ll come to us. Well, we’ve got to say no because that is hindering them from doing the work they need to do to cultivate other donors. At this point they are looking for donors more than patrons. We were the patrons that got it started because we believed in it, but if it is going to be healthy they can’t just come to us when there’s a tough spot.

FS: But it’s still worth the risk?

RGA: Yes, but for all its pitfalls, patronage of one kind or another is the reason most great works of art exist.

FS: What are the rewards of being a patron? What makes you say to yourself, “I would much rather be a patron than a donor”?

RGA: Well, there’s the joy of creation. There’s the joy of seeing something come to fruition that wouldn’t have happened. We are working now with Biola University on the chapel. It’s a new vision from the original and a genuine partnership. The new chapel is gorgeous. It’s going to honour God. It’s going to honour the creativity of human beings made in the image of God. It is going to be something to draw people to that campus just to see the chapel. It is going to inspire the students and give them a place of beauty to go to when they just need a time to sit and think and pray and do whatever. It’s going to change the campus because they have decided that beauty matters and God does beautiful stuff. This building is going to honour God, and it’s going to enhance the whole campus. God’s standard is pretty high, and our standard ought to be high.

FS: So, there is also the role of connecting people and ideas and not just seeing, protecting, or identifying?

RGA: Yes, that is wonderful to me. I love that, to see when all these pieces come together and something happens that’s bigger or better than even you imagined. I didn’t know what it would look like. I just knew it would be wonderful. And donors will want to be associated with the beauty and the glory. They want to be part of that and, again, that’s a wonderful thing. That means that those people are going to be different in how they give their money, and their entire world will become bigger.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith

Fred Smith is the President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families, and foundations giving to Christian ministries. As well, Fred is the Chairman of Fourth Partner, a non-profit organization focused on philanthropy and community development within the East Texas area. Fred and his wife, Carol, reside in Tyler, Texas.

Roberta Green Ahmanson
Roberta Green Ahmanson

Roberta Green Ahmanson is a writer and speaker who lives with her husband in Orange County, California. A former newspaper religion reporter, her current work focuses on the intellectual roots of current trends as well as the relationships between art, religion, culture, and history.


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