Angel Investors for the Arts: A New Breed of Patrons Is Actually Very Old-School

In a recent post, I looked at the demise of the "Old World" model of mega-giving to the arts. To summarize: Back in the day, hands-off donors and collectors gave chunks of their fortunes and/or their art collections to a trusted institution and washed their hands of the whole process. Now, however, thanks to the emergence of a breed of hands-on, detail-oriented "New World" donors, organizations must adapt to more personal and collaborative relationships. In more cases, too, ambitious new donors are choosing to bypass existing arts institutions altogether, creating their own private museums.

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But not all facets of "Old World" giving are doomed for extinction. Take the idea of the arts patron. The notion of an arts-loving benefactor paying for an artist's grocery bills or painting supplies seems rather antiquated. 

But a recent New York Times piece by Jennifer Miller suggests that this "Old World" model of patronage is coming back in vogue.

Thanks to the Internet, looming budget cuts, and a growing awareness of the importance of the arts, digital age patrons, both individual and institutional, are "moving away from merely collecting and consuming art and toward a model reminiscent of the Renaissance," giving creators a "pathway to success and economic stability, providing living expenses, supplies, pep talks and more."

These patrons believe that young artists should be developed like an "angel investor" supports a promising start-up. They "see that something has potential to grow, and you want to support that incubation period,” said Rose Lee Goldberg, an art historian at New York University.

This line of thinking may sound familiar to IP readers. Earlier this year I talked with Laura Callanan, the founder of Upstart Co-Lab, about social entrepreneurship and impact investing in the arts. Callanan said that impact investors, enthusiastic about aligning their capital with their values, have begun to ask for an opportunity to invest in the power of the arts and creativity to make positive social change. 

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Upstart investors' motives may be more commercially oriented than Miller's angel investor, but the underlying idea is the same: Both proponents view artists as important social entrepreneurs who need support if they're going to reach their potential for making a positive contribution to society. 

According to Miller, this idea has gained significant traction among a younger cohort of arts patrons in their 30s through early 50s. This is unsurprising. A good number of these individuals likely hail from the tech field, where things like "angel investors" and "incubation periods" are the norm. It's natural to think of the arts similarly.

Support from younger patrons is also encouraging because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom suggesting that younger donors—and techies in particular—don't like the arts.

Miller's piece echoes recent IP coverage of the arts in other ways, too. Her profiles of well-to-do enthusiasts writing checks to struggling artists reminds us of the Foundation for Contemporary Art's emergency grants. "Angel investor" patrons providing emerging artists with a well-defined career structure remind us of the Clark Hulings Fund, which helps artists boost their business acumen.

While retro in spirit, the emergence of the "angel investor" art patron is ultimately rooted in fundamental change sweeping across the art world over the past decade or so.

"For many years, patrons were supporting institutions or a product, underwriting this ballet or putting their name on a specific show at a museum," said Carolina García Jayaram, president and chief executive of the National YoungArtsFoundation.

Today, she said, “donors understand how important it is to support artists—not just the art.”