Patronage: A Better Model for Funding Jewish Art and Culture

Painter Archie Rand is in a very rare and fortunate position. For more than 40 years, Rand, who is based in Brooklyn, has been supported by a group of businessmen who don’t particularly like art, who don’t go to museums, and don’t hang artwork in their homes. Every month, they pay him, though he declines to say who they are or how much he receives. But it has been enough to support his family, to buy investment real estate and to put his two children through some of America’s finest universities.

This small group of businessmen support him, Rand says, because they believe in the power of painting. In a Jewish community that does not value painting as an art form the way it appreciates music, literature and film, says Rand, “they see that Jewish art needs to exist as a matter of cultural pride.”

Oddly, “the patrons write me monthly checks to keep me productive, but they don’t want the work,” says Rand. These works are not the illustration-type work for which Rand may be best known, but fine art paintings. They mostly sit, stacked, in his studio, he says.

I wish more American Jews would make themselves art patrons.

Through my son Aryeh, who is a rising star in the world of opera, I have seen how important patronage can be. In the opera world, patrons donate the equivalent of an opera singer’s salary to his or her opera house, which is a nonprofit organization, which then uses that money to pay the singer’s salary. Patrons also sometimes provide money for the pricey tuxedos and evening gowns singers wear to perform, or with travel opportunities and fancy meals out. They are essentially investing in their artists’ promise and demonstrating that they should feel valued.

This system of patronage exists in American opera, but aside from Rand’s patrons, it is seldom found among Jewish funders of Jewish arts and culture.

Instead, Jewish philanthropists provide “seed funding” for projects. Winning such funding provides encouragement and a bit of money to a young artist, but isn’t enough to go very far.

Related: As Funders Abandon Support for Jewish Arts and Culture, Nonprofits Are Closing

Most artists I know today—and I am lucky enough to count several as good friends—struggle to finance their work and pay the rent and bills. These are hardly Renaissance-type artists living a high life supported by Medicis.

Instead, they limp along, spending significant time on lengthy applications that might provide them with $2,500 for a year-long Jewish arts fellowship. It’s hardly enough to live on. Even once they establish reputations, artists still struggle from commission to commission, paying bills by holding down day jobs like teaching or doing something unrelated to their art. It often leaves them with barely enough time to catch their breath, let alone the mental and physical space necessary to create original works of art.

To make this a reality, however, the philanthropically minded would need to value art. To be willing to say, “This is important. This contributes to what it means to be Jewish.” They would need to be willing to finance expressions of Judaism that don’t fit into the usual boxes—that aren’t synagogue programming, for instance, since most young Jews don’t go to synagogues.

How wonderful it would be if more Jews with money committed to finding an artist whose work they admire and providing him or her with enough money to live for a reasonable period of time, say five to 10 years.

That way, the artist would not need to worry about making rent, and instead be freed to compose, to paint, to write plays and novels and poetry, to choreograph and to create works of lasting value.

Think about the corpus of work that might emerge in a range of disciplines: music, visual art, writing, dance and theater.

This money isn’t coming from the government the way it did during the Works Progress Administration era in the 1930s and early '40s, when its Federal Project Number One employed artists, musicians, actors and writers to paint murals and sculpt monuments, some of which still adorn public spaces, and to create and perform original works. At its peak, the WPA employed 5,300 artists and creators, though it cost just a tiny fraction of the endeavor’s overall budget. It also provided early work and training to Jewish artists, including Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner. While the WPA led to the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts, today’s American government does not value or fund arts and culture the way European governments do.

So it is up to philanthropy, and the wealthiest Jewish community in history. Think about the legacy for future generations that could be created by moving to a patronage model, rather than seed funding. Wouldn’t that be something?

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