Adjunct Instructor, Rhode Island School of Design
and Swarthmore College
Artists rarely discuss their patrons, or the idea of patronage. Maybe it’s just too hard to explain the very peculiar kinds of relationships that enable an artist to get what it takes to keep going. Maybe it’s because the popular myth has it that patronage is about money, and therefore it’s about an unequal financial relationship that is better left unexamined. Maybe it’s because we artists unrealistically see the patron as a fairy godmother who will swoop into your studio, fall in un-ending love with your work, pay off your debt, and stamp your name permanently into the history of art.
None of my professors in art school would even discuss how to get a show. A frank discussion about patronage? Fo’get about it! So in the fall of 1996 I was clearly unprepared when a casual flirt at a fancy Christmas party introduced me to my most important patron for the next ten years, and a great friend for life.
I met Bill in early December, 1996. The meeting itself was hardly earth-shattering. The host of the party gave several parties a year, and whenever I was invited I tried to go, but almost always felt uncomfortable once I got there. In gay society, there is something called the “A List,” made up of men whose social status is high. I have no pretensions that I was ever on the “A List,” but I was for a while invited to some “A List” parties. I think as a young artist with a very handsome and clever French boyfriend, I was a kind of intriguing curiosity.
At the party I wandered from room to room, eating too much. When I am nervous at a party, I tend to eat and drink too fast, establishing a buzz, which breaks down my shyness. I started talking with Bill in a small hall space, hidden from the larger rooms. Bill was handsome, with a dark, thick goatee, a fresh face, and an open smile. He was down to earth, engaging and not at all stand-offish, a change from the usual at these events. I invited Bill to a party at my house the following weekend, which became the first of many visits.
Bill was in medical school at Penn on his way to becoming a psychiatrist. I found out much later that part of Bill’s family is quite wealthy. I learned little by little that he and his family are passionate about art, all kinds, and like to collect it. They like creative people of all stripes — artists, writers, actors, musicians, and have a lot of opportunity to meet them. Bill’s father and step-mom were involved in the very highest end of the Philly art scene, serving on the board of the Art Museum, and paying for the restoration of the great glass entry at Penn’s Furness Library. They bought fistfuls of beautiful contemporary art. They gave their children a contemporary art allowance, like training wheels. I had no clue about any of this when we met, which is very likely why I was able to develop a friendship with Bill. In retrospect, meeting Bill was vital to my learning how to be an artist. Bill knew artists and knew what they could do when given the chance. Bill gave me that chance.
To me there is a difference between a patron and a collector. I have had patrons who never spent a penny on my work, but whose support of my work is critical. I think of them as people in my corner, rooting for me in a fight. Other people have bought my work the same way they buy shoes or plane tickets, and though I benefit from and appreciate the income of these transactions, they are not patrons. Bill’s enthusiasm for my work that winter affirmed that someone outside of my artist friends could take a serious interest in what I was doing.
For a short while Bill dated a close friend, so I began to see him often. He made many visits to our house, which has my studio on the third floor. During this time I had a large roll of paper, about 15’, stapled from one side of my studio to the other. On it I was painting about the death of Eddie Polec, a teenager tragically killed in North Philly in the mid-nineties. The painting eventually took 18 months to complete. It was about half finished when Bill told me he wanted to buy it. I laughed it off, because it was so far from being done, because discussing painting sales embarrassed me, and because at the time I had no idea that Bill had the funds to pay what I thought it was worth. When I finally agreed to sell it, I still couldn’t state a price. I think the eventual price of the painting earned me around 10¢ an hour, but it was my biggest sale up to that point and I was thrilled.
While I worked on the piece, Bill would ask about the painting’s progress, and visit my studio from time to time. I think he thought of the work as a shared enterprise — I was painting the painting, and he was watching and encouraging its progress. It seemed to take forever – it was large and the brushes were small. I was nervous, and worked slowly to limit mistakes. Bill’s belief in the work, and his desire to own it, really helped me finish it.
Over the years, Bill bought many of my paintings. What’s more, he introduced me to all sorts of people — collectors, artists, actors, and curators. He brought me into his family, who in their turn have become close friends and patrons.
Artists don’t look for patrons, we stumble on them, and it isn’t about money, it’s about a shared faith in the creation of new work, and a partnership that makes it happen.