Online Patronage: Can Artists Really Build A Career On The Internet?

I won't mention the Medicis once.

Amelia Rowland

Raise your hand if you’ve ever bid on something ridiculously out of your league on Ebay. Raise your hand if you’ve ever hunted an artist’s print on Etsy, the scene playing out like you’re Scar and the song is ‘Be Prepared’ from The Lion King. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever been an online patron.
The amount of people who are donating money through online patronage platforms has become a phenomenon. Back in 2014 the BBC interviewed Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit (Mr Serena Williams, for the non-tech but very-tennis savvy) about the possibility of online ‘crowd-patronage’ being the innovation of the future. He said that it would  allow artists, creatives, and inventors to sustainably create a viable career. He hailed this online patronage as revolutionary, and in some ways it has been. But in the world of the internet, three years is actually an unbelievably long time, full of Hotline Bling memes, Harambe (RIP) and people sleazily winking whilst wanting to ‘Netflix and Chill’. Time flies by fast on the internet, and I want to check in and see if the predictions were right, and if the online patronage model actually delivers.


Patreon and Kickstarter - The Cool Patronage Companies

The online platform Patreon was started in 2013 by Jack Conte (musician) and Sam Yam (developer). The best way to describe this company is to read their ‘behind the scenes’ posts, particularly:

Our mission is to fund the emerging creative class. Patreon’s goal is to help every professional creator achieve sustainable income

In their promotional video they turn to art (and other) histories to make the premise of the platform relatable, but cooler. Their headlines are catchy with ‘CREATORS COME GET PAID’ and their presentation is relaxed, excitable and a slick montage of bright colours, singers singing, podcasters podcasting, artists sketching, and vloggers all happily at work. So it’s actually a million times cooler than history, it's a Silicon Valley level startup on acid.

They recount how some of the most iconic works including the Mona Lisa (heard about her?) and Romeo and Juliet (heard about them?) were products of patronage, lumping them into the same basket. They then say in the next breath that they were commissioned so that the patrons could enjoy their works and ‘brag to their friends about how cool they are for supporting creators’. Art history professors around the world must be shaking their fists angrily at their computers, cursing the very names of Conte and Yam. This is, after all, a cool, (sunglasses wearing emoji inserted here) but ridiculously over-simplified angle to take when looking at patronage.

Patronage across art history is an extremely complex affair. It could be undertaken for a number of reasons, and demanded different things from different artists. Looking outside the Western canon of art, patronage systems have been just as complicated elsewhere. One of the most interesting relationships between a ‘patron’ figure and the production of culture is the Japanese Shogun; you can read more here. The shoguns (the head political and martial figure or warlord of Japan, from the 12th century onwards) decorated their villas with art and culture, spending money on building projects, and patronising the artistic practices that were entwined in religious beliefs like Zen Buddhism.

However, the effectiveness of Patreon’s analogies can almost be excused when you look at their track record. Patreon’s stats show a business plan that only increases in value, and a culture of positivity surrounding arts funding that is sometimes rarely seen in the world of institutional grants, commercial art galleries, and contemporary art marketing. It’s a refreshing approach, encouraging you to believe that artists really could pursue a career in their chosen field. To be honest, I finished researching Patreon and started contemplating whether I should start a Patreon page…

Conte wrote in his ‘Behind The Scenes’ post on 4 January 2017 that creators who use Patreon have doubled their income annually, thereby creating ‘reliable salaries’. He then uses an amazing graph that also makes me wish I was better at Microsoft Office Suite. Similarly, Kickstarter have pioneered how we define this new form of virtual patronage, with several success stories of the platform allowing a product or idea to blossom into a company. The Oculus Rift (why hello old friend, we discussed here in our VR Art post) was originally a Kickstarter product, and even though it hasn’t really become a household hit (unless you take baths in dollar bills) it was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion. Kickstarter also note that over 14 million people have ‘backed’ or patronised one of their projects since their website launched in 2009. Like Patreon, the emphasis is on the platform allowing artists, creators, filmmakers, designers and musicians to gain financial support, and the patron receiving some kind of reward or benefit in return.
Chinese photographic artist Luo Yang has just become another success on Kickstarter, beating her goal of raising €15,000 to help produce the book GIRLS (2007-2017). You are able to pledge anywhere from €1-1,080, with different rewards for each tier, and the top pledges receive the finished book, a mention in the book as a donor, and a limited edition art print. When you look at how much you would have to pay for a commercial artwork, an open edition Vettriano print or the a painting of flowers that belong on hotel walls, for example (£495 by the way) - these kind of goals or rewards are achievable, and comparatively, affordable.

Ultimately, models like these are based on the idea of making patronage accessible on any budget, to basically anyone. It’s founded on principles of inclusivity, making sponsors and ‘patrons’ feel like they are not only gaining an artwork, music recording or something as an end result - they are also funding the project from its conception. They get insights into the artist’s process, updates can take the form of personal blogs, and you can actually see how your contribution translates into an idea, object or artwork. Let’s real talk here - this support for creativity, the belief that an artist of creator should have a sustainable income, and the enthusiasm towards arts funding is something several governments could learn from.

The Problem With Such Big Platforms Like Patreon and Kickstarter Is…

That brilliant ideas can often get lost. Patreon has over 50,000 creators, and the top 20 creator in the ‘painting and drawing’ category has 5,209 patrons (here’s looking at you Mike Inel). Sifting through these is like sorting through the Amazon Prime Day discounts, lots of great gifts but oh so hard to keep focused.

I had the pleasure of discussing the effectiveness of Patreon as fundraising for a specific art project with the artist, author and illustrator MariNaomi. MariNaomi is a practicing illustrator and author, who has a Patreon account for both her comics, and her two projects: the Cartoonists of Color Database and the Queer Cartoonists Database. These databases are free to the public and are a hugely beneficial (and underrated) resource for marginalized artists to present their works to professionals and keen art supporters alike. MariNaomi had originally created separate Patreon accounts for each database, hoping to gain financial support for these projects, especially as these platforms need constant work: administrating, updating and adding different artists or creators. However, she shut these accounts down after not generating enough subscribers:

It was too depressing, and ultimately I don't want these databases to be about making money. They're just the nice thing I try to do for other people.

MariNaomi realised there was a need for these databases in 2014, and her emphasis has always been on generating a community and providing an opportunity for marginalized artists and illustrators to have their work seen by a huge variety of people. It also means that the artists on the database can be inspired by other artists on the site, being able to access similar viewpoints, ideas, or artistic styles. The emphasis again here is inclusivity: creating a free, easy to use platform for an artist or creator to highlight and represent themselves, in a way that they can control.

Arts and creative databases are becoming increasingly prevalent, as more individuals appropriate the scientific or technology-defined term for new purposes. The term ‘database’ first came into use in the early 1960s, as technological inventions including direct access storage systems, like disks, required ‘...computerised record-keeping systems’. It has now gone beyond this meaning to be a digital (and sometimes real-life) system of archiving and organising large quantities of any form of information. In this instance, these databases are now also the best form of representation and having your art seen in a flooded online market.

Another successful example of databases being used to create a visibility for marginalized artists is Women Who Draw - a directory or database boasting over 2,700 female, trans and gender non-conforming artists and illustrators. And like MariNaomi, Patreon and Kickstarter, their aim is to create a sustainable, affordable way for artists to gain work, jobs and pursue their practice as a career. Women Who Draw also relies on contributions and donations for maintenance and administration and does not use sites like Patreon or Kickstarter to aid their efforts. Instead, you can support their work directly on their website, with the option to donate any amount that you choose. All in all though, producing and caring for these databases seems like a ridiculously hard job, with several factors going on ‘behind the scenes’, as MariNaomi describes:

The more successful it gets, the more likely you will get trolled by assholes about your good deed. It will be hard and thankless in many ways, but at least you'll be doing a good thing, which is more than the trolls can say. Don't overextend yourself, lest you get burnt out and quit!

She has since found more success in fundraising through her own artist profile on Patreon, and uses this as a space for discussing the databases. Social media has also been helpful in raising awareness of the databases, often cited as evidence when large companies believe there aren’t many diverse artists or creators to choose from. In many ways online patronage has expanded beyond the models provided by Patreon and Kickstarter, proving that hard work and digital savvy can sometimes help an artist build a career. Some of the best advice I received on how to create online communities and support artists, beyond the OTT enthusiasm you see pouring from the corporate videos of patronage sites came from MariNaomi herself:

The times I've created online communities (I've created small communities on other platforms, often art-related), I did so because I saw a lack of such a thing and I wanted the community to exist. My advice: Do it because you want to do it, not because you want money or fame.

Patronage and Supporting The Arts Isn’t Just For The Big Spenders

Somewhere along the course of history the term ‘patron’ and the way we describe contemporary patrons has become synonymous with wealth and an angelic status. The Medicis have become a family name thrown about so much and so casually, they may as well be a cream cashmere Ralph Lauren sweater at a polo match. The Financial Times in 2007 described the new patron-artist relationship as being one that allows artists flexibility, personal ties and ‘setting the artist free’. However, this is all set in the mystical realm of America’s ‘wealthy individuals’ and tech execs, who are property developers and investment bankers. Remember when I said to raise your hand if you ever bid on something ridiculously out of your league on Ebay? There’s also the superstars of art collecting and patronage like Peggy Guggenheim and Charles Saatchi, who have produced a public identity partly from their active, prolific patronage. The problem we have though, is that when you put these patrons on a pedestal in everyday discourse, you exclude the multitude of ways that artists, creators and individuals are re-defining the patronage model. From the new territory covered in databases like the Cartoonists of Color and Queer Cartoonists Database which give an artist a platform to present their work, and potentially encourage patronise or work from it, or to the simple act of donating $1 and feeling included in a large, community-driven patronage as seen on Patreon and Kickstarter. The internet has expanded how we understand who can become a patron, and why people become patrons. And that’s a pretty incredible thing, giving me a little bit of hope for any artist wanting to produce a career in a competitive, huge and diluted art world.