Art and Commerce


Creativity and how it’s paid for

By Kenn Taylor

Throughout history, art and money have always had something of an ambivalent relationship. The role of the professional artist is in itself a product of excess wealth in any given society. Unless there are surplus resources produced to sustain them, such a function cannot exist. In ancient societies, art and culture was produced by members of communities as merely part of their whole existence.

The creation of more intensive agriculture produced a surplus of food, which led to a freeing up of people and resources. This meant that some people could become dedicated to producing art in exchange for sustenance produced by others, paid for those with the power and the capital to commission it. The professional artist had been born.

Art of course is meant to be, and I do believe it is, something that is above the everyday banality of existence. Truly great art; music, films, sculpture, whatever can transcend cultural and political boundaries, language, and the lives of the individual people and cultures that produce it. The ancient Roman and Greek empires and the people who created them are long gone, but we still have all those armless statues to remind us of them.

Yet in the time that art is being created, the money needs to come from somewhere. Art may rise above such things, but artists themselves and institutions that support art do not, there are always resources to be got, bills to be paid. And, usually, those providing the money have had some say in the art, to a greater or lesser extent.

A cursory glance in any art gallery with a historical collection reveals the influence on art of wherever the centres of power and money lay at any given time in history. For centuries the Catholic Church held much of the power in the Western world and had something of a monopoly on commissioning most artistic production.

Later, royalty and the wider aristocracy called the tune. The Medici dynasty that ran the Republic of Florence funded much of the Italian Renaissance. Further on, the mercantile proto-capitalists in the wealthy Netherlands bankrolled the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, with their demand for secular imagery to adorn their homes.

In 19th century Britain, it was the new industrial barons who paid for much of the art. On Merseyside, the Tate, Walker and Lady Lever Art Galleries were originally paid for by Henry Tate, Andrew Barclay Walker and William Hesketh Lever, magnates in sugar, brewing and soap manufacture respectively. All those grand palaces of culture were paid for from the profits made from selling commodities to the new urban masses created by the Industrial Revolution. In Victorian Britain, sponsorship of the arts was a good way to improve your image as more than a businessman. It was an early example of ‘brand association’ that continues right through to today’s Unilever plc, the successor to William Lever’s firm, sponsoring Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall projects.

Later, New York became the post-WWII centre for arts, paid for by that city’s status as the centre of modern capitalism. And, as London took over and became the world centre of ‘casino banking’ after the ‘Big Bang’ that revolutionised the stock market in 1986, those that had grown rich in this brave new world bankrolled much of the ‘Young British Artists’ movement.

This was more of a blip really in the UK though. After WWII, the Government assumed the role of the principle patron of arts, in much the same way it did with health, coal and railways, with the foundation of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. The Arts Council is widely regarded worldwide as a good model of support for the arts, neither directly state controlled and thus subject to adverse political interference, nor laissez-faire and thus entirely reliant on the whim of the market.

However, there is an inevitability of not being able to rely on the state consistently for funding, as the recent cuts in public expenditure has proven. These cuts have created much debate about what or who will pay for the arts in future. The current Coalition Government is keen on more corporate sponsorship for the arts and, in particular, philanthropy from rich individuals, something which has left many people aghast.

Many view state support as purer than corporate support or wealthy patronage, as if it taints the art less. Yet, state funding also has its own issues. It is certainly not ‘innocent’, being paid for of course through the taxation garnered through our capitalist system. Rising and falling with the whims of any given government and subject to the whims of individual Arts Council staff, state funding inevitably has its own agendas, strings and bureaucracy attached that can be very frustrating to creatives.

There is no one perfect system for funding of the arts, but artists and arts institutions must make terms with their role in the wider economy. Art is not, and never has been, totally ‘pure’, the money must come from somewhere, even if that creates distaste in the mouth of people who presumably aren’t struggling to feed themselves or keep an art gallery open and with free entry. Yet, engaging with economic reality doesn’t have to mean producing poorer work. Today, there is a greater variety of ways that ever to fund creative endeavours.

In terms of institutions, a mixture of funding sources is probably the healthiest, as influence from one source or the other is less likely to interfere with the integrity of programming and also leave it less vulnerable to one source of funding drying up. Something that the people running Britain’s wider economy, with its over reliance on financial services, could have taken heed of.

The Tate may be regarded by some as a corporate monolith, but it operates a good mixed model of funding, with Government money now accounting for less than 50% of its income, the rest a mixture of sales, memberships, donations and corporate and foundation sponsorship. Tate’s well off members and supporters help pay to keep its doors open for free and its outreach and education programmes running for the less advantaged.

Although many smaller and regional institutions couldn’t match Tate’s prowess, at the opposite end of the scale, in 2012, Shetland Arts will open Mareel, a cinema, performance and creative industries centre in Lerwick, one of the remotest parts of the UK. Mareel has no revenue funding to support its operation and activity. Instead, they plan to sustain themselves through the ownership and exploitation of intellectual property rights – by investing in the creation of arts projects and working to leverage the value of any content. It will also take advantage of digital communications with live music content captured and broadcast from the venue, giving it an audience stretching far beyond its isolated base. If this can be done in a remote Scottish island, surely some of the institutions in England’s regional cities could take inspiration.

What about individual artists? Again the internet is an invaluable tool for the upcoming creative that was not open to others in the past. The net has made self-promotion far easier. You can sell you e-book or artwork online and cut out the middle man. You can put music or film on YouTube for a potential global audience for free and make your own impressive website that you don’t need a degree in computing to build. Crowd funding, or ‘micro-philanthropy’, via the net is also a new option. is a site that has helped individual creatives and groups to source funding from ordinary individuals to support everything from arts clubs for disadvantaged kids in Peckham to a travel journalism assignment across Europe.

Aside from working as an individual, there is indeed strength in unity, both in operating a more traditional business model such as a limited company, or any number of alternatives. The artists’ collective has appeared repeatedly through history, with mixed success. Many artists’ studios in Liverpool, such as The Royal Standard and Red Wire, operate on this basis of collective management, operation and funding, banding together to provide studio and gallery space, collectivise resources and bid for bigger funding from other sources.

It is also possible to find a balance between producing ‘pure’ work you want to pursue and commercial work that pays the bills. Again, there’s a long tradition of this, William Blake did commercial work as an engraver his whole life to support his own artistic endeavours. More contemporary, here in Liverpool we can see self-sustaining arts organisations like Mercy and the Kazimier who have found a balance between sustainable commercial success while maintaining their artistic integrity, producing work for corporate or state clients or paying patrons and re-investing that back into more ‘purely’ artistic work.

In these austere times, probably more than ever artists and arts institutions must stare their bank accounts in the face, but doing this doesn’t have to mean selling out. All the great art works in history had to, one way or another, make terms with the economic and political reality in which they were created. As Bob Dylan said, ‘you’re gonna have to serve somebody’ but, more than ever, it can be on your own terms.

This piece appeared in the December issue of Object of Dreams magazine.