Article by Brian Sewell

Of all the two dozen or so definitions of a patron in the Oxford Dictionary, the least used now must be that of Roman antiquity, when a patron was the former master of a freed slave who, though deemed free in law, was nevertheless obliged to recognise that the man whose socks he was once compelled to wash, still retained some claim on him.  In the arts, this is now much more the position of the patron and the recipient of his patronage than we are perhaps willing to acknowledge.  We pretend that the patron is dispassionate, that his patronage is not a matter of the quid pro quo, that like the Medici he stands aloof, hopes for a work of genius as his reward, and pays the bill ungrudgingly.  It may sometimes be so, but those who are onlookers at the relationship are aware how mightily the recipient must strive to ensure that his patron discreetly and unobtrusively receives the praise, profit, publicity and low kow-tow that, rather than fostering the arts, are the true objective of his funding.  Proof enough of this lies in the letters so often sent by those funded to critics, demanding or pleading, requiring or beseeching, importuning or entreating (the strategies adopted are infinitely various) that they write reviews acknowledging the largesse of sponsors, no matter how those sponsors get their money nor how bad the object of their support.

The compliant critic is, it seems, one of the rewards offered to the sponsor.  “Give us the funding for our jazz festival, orchestral concert, opera, recital or art exhibition, and the critics will give you column inches beyond the dreams of your most avaricious PR and advertising agency”; that is the promise, but some critics resent their being made, willy-nilly, part of the package of reward and recompense and will not play the game – the sponsor gets his column inches but his name is never mentioned.  Besides, some of us profoundly dislike the business of some sponsors; for those in the arts to take the money of arms dealers and manufacturers, of those who hunt the whale or own the fishing fleets that de-nature the oceans, of those who drill for oil in unspoilt wilderness, fell forests, export live farm animals, own vivisection laboratories, grow GM crops, export nuclear waste to countries that neither know nor care how to neutralise it safely, is to sup with the devil.  “The end justifies the means,” is the response of the casuist who hopes for cash; and “unless you allow us to kill dolphins in our pursuit of tuna, or scrape away the coral reefs, or drown the albatross, or drive the turtle to extinction, we shall have no money to spare,” responds the sponsor, “and you shall not have your opera or exhibition.”

Before I am damned as a Greenpeace warrior, let me make it clear that some sponsors are extraordinarily generous, donate the necessary funds and ask virtually nothing in return other than that their names be associated with the enterprise in programmes, catalogues, advertising and in any other form where it may be appropriate and inoffensive.  Some, alas, think it proper to write a foreword, but succeed only in appearing boastful and ignorant, destroying goodwill and gratitude by crossing the fine line between plain statement and plainer amour-propre.  Some private sponsors ask nothing at all, and we have all been to concerts and exhibitions without realising that they would not have taken place without their anonymous patrons.  These are the saints whose subsidies enable an opera to be revived, a neglected old master to be re-assessed, or a musician to be introduced to the wider public he deserves, but matters are very different in the boardroom of the famous firm with a foot in every continent and a myriad shareholders lying in wait – for them the rare, the forgotten and the untried simply will not do.  Some onlookers are convinced that in the world’s most powerful boardrooms the decision to sponsor or withhold the funds is made at whim and in ignorance.

The scenario is thus: the board decides that, as all their peers and rivals are sponsoring the arts, their firm had better do the same; perhaps independently, perhaps through Arts and Business, the organisation formed a quarter of a century ago to handle sponsorship, make marriages and blow its own trumpet, contact is made with, for example, the National Gallery.  “Whoopee!” they say in Trafalgar Square and, trying not to be too greedy, propose an exhibition of all the paintings attributed to Sebastian Stoskopff, a rare and brilliant painter of strange still lives, working in Strasbourg early in the 17th century, to whose confusions scholarship and connoisseurship need to be applied.  “Sebastian who?” enquires the Chairman.” Now the Chairman knows of Monet and Degas, and in Bond Street a year or two ago he bought A View of Venice by Ken Howard, the celebrated Royal Academician, but of Stoskopff he has never heard.  Were the Oxford Companion to Art to be found on his bookshelves among the novellas of the late lamented Barbara Cartland, he might think to conceal his ignorance, but poor Stoskopff is too obscure to be included in such a general reference book.  And so the decision is made – no sponsorship.

Had the National Gallery, however, asked for help with a show of Manet or Cézanne, Gauguin or Van Gogh, the Chairman would not have felt humiliated by ignorance and the funding would have been agreed.  Business is not interested in names of which it has never heard.  Let me give you an example: in 1990, when the National Gallery wished to introduce its recently purchased Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich to a wider audience, by exhibiting it with related drawings and another version, it could get no business sponsorship for, the Chairmen, Friedrich was unknown.  Had it not been for one single private sponsor, a German businessman who heard of the predicament, the scholarly and enlightening exhibition would not have taken place – and yet it was this exhibition that made Friedrich’s, if not a household name, at least one to which a critic may now refer without having to explain himself and him.  This little exhibition was one that did a great good in, if not quite remedying the blindness of the British to German art, significantly breaching the prejudice against it; on its foundation, other German artists have been brought to the fore, and it is now evident that this example of private patronage – a matter of only £20,000 or so – achieved far more for art in the long term than many much more flamboyant and obvious exhibitions that pleased the wealthy women of the blue-rinse belt.

Music’s equivalent of Friedrich and his Winter Landscape of 1811, is perhaps Louis Spohr and his opera Faust of 1816, widely popular for decades until killed off by Gounod’s version of the legend in 1859; but what would the Chairman make of a Faust without a Marguerite and with an Ugo and Cunegonde instead of Valentin and Siebel?  To be the patron of a Spohr revival the businessman would have to be a devil-may-care opera buff prepared to cock a snook at his shareholders, and of such men there must be very few.

Arts and Business seduce the businessman with all sorts of assertions about the benefits of arts sponsorship – the last Monet exhibition at the Royal Academy brought its sponsor media coverage worth £850,000, including, no doubt, my reviews, in not one of the counted column inches was the sponsor mentioned; how can these supposed benefits be accurately assessed?  Arts and Business statistics indicate that the categories of art that “are most successful in generating business investment” are museums, art galleries and opera.  There we have it – the idea of arts sponsorship is sold to the businessman, not because in the abstract it is a good thing for society, but because it is good for business.  In supping with the devil, Arts and Business provide the recipient with a short spoon.

We take for granted that sponsorship is good for art, and so it may be sometimes, but by no means always.  The Titian exhibition at the National Gallery, sponsored by Barclays, raised two important questions – first, what was the quality of the experience for the ordinary visitor when the rooms were so uncomfortably crowded and so miserably lit that he could neither approach nor clearly see the paintings, and second, in so small an exhibition, should so many pictures be in such ruined condition or so evidently second-rate?  Would The Genius of Rome exhibition at the Royal Academy two years ago have been sponsored so readily by Crédit Suisse and The Financial Times had they honestly been told that the underlying thesis was untenable nonsense and that half the Caravaggios would be duds and the catalogue scandalously negligent?  Do bankers, so scrupulously careful in their own fields of expertise, swallow any old bait that is dangled before them?

BP funds the Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery to the tune of £160,000 a year (how on earth does the NPG manage to spend quite so much money on so simple an exercise when each aspirant pays a £10 fee to enter – £7,600 this year?).  I have since it began, more than twenty years ago, thought this one of the most laudable examples of patronage, wholly worthy, but the Award now seems determined to do as much harm as good, to be whimsical and often downright silly in its choice of portraits, its objective much more to attract the comments of the press than to promote the arts and particular skills of portraiture.  “Never mind the quality,” the judges say, “we must choose pictures that challenge the perception of the visitors.” Why must we be challenged?  Is challenge, the poke in the eye with the pointed stick, the slap in the belly with a wet fish, the way to get £850,000 worth of press coverage promised by Arts and Business, and to Hell with the original intention of the Award?  If challenge is deliberately sought in any art form simply to excite the press and assault the senses of the punters, then challenge is a corrupting influence and neither donors nor the recipients of their money should connive in it.

BP also funds the merry-go-round rehanging at the Tate, apparently oblivious of the damage done when, as has happened often enough in the past for the lesson to have been learned, the real treasures of the collections disappear, disappointing visitors’ expectations with trivia chosen by whimsical curators.  No one wants a permanently static Tate, but out of their tens of thousands of second-rate and almost unexhibitable possessions they should, as national and international galleries, recognise that they have an obligation to keep their few hundred real treasures on view and not, sometimes for years on end, relegate them to distant stores where they can be seen only by appointment and in uncomfortable circumstances.  That they fail in this duty is entirely attributable to the misapplied generosity of BP.

The Arts Council, an even larger source of sponsorship than business, represents the state as patron, but does it in any way represent the nation’s taste?  When it was established more than half a century ago and run by the genuinely great and good, its roots lay in the intellectual and aesthetic nourishment that the state had modestly provided up and down the country during World War II and had no axe to grind, no guiding prejudice.  Now it has become a political animal of sorts, an instrument of the correctitudes of race, gender, class and all popular fads of social engineering, including, in the visual arts, an absurd prejudice against everything that is not modern or contemporary.  It is self-selecting and self-appointing and most Arts Councillors are wholly unknown to the public and have only the most tenuous connection with the arts, or none.  Its bureaucracy has agendas of its own and would, were it able to do so, have all critics in its thrall or replaced by a new and brainwashed generation of them, and in its exercise of particular and peculiar forms of obligation it is indeed a patron in the ancient Roman sense – woe betide any applicant for funding who does not precisely fit their bill and toe their line.  In the eyes of the Arts Council it is better to be black than white, better to be of any race other than plain AngloSaxon, better to conform to any current fad or fashion, no matter how divergent, than to be a painter, sculptor or print-maker in any ancestral European sense.  The more lunatic the concept, project or idea of anyone declaring himself to be an artist, the better, for with the Arts Council we are certainly in the world of the challenge, the downright assault and, inevitably the much vaunted right to fail – of which the Council is so proud.  One of the figures never published by the Arts Council is the annual cost of the projects paid for but never completed, of money down the drain.

If, in the visual arts, the Arts Council restricts its patronage to the extremes, the wilder shores of the contemporary art and, until very recently, its own Councillors, in opera it is compelled to support the art of the past – but seems extraordinarily grudging.  If business has discovered that opera is one of the three forms of art most worth supporting in a business sense, how is it that of the Arts Council’s two grandest opera clients, Covent Garden is still in disarray and the ENO on the point of breaking down?  The ENO came into existence to satisfy demand when Covent Garden’s 2,000 seats were simply not enough for the metropolis – and still are not, and never can be.  Raymond Gubbay’s unsubsidised productions came into existence to satisfy further demand, and if ever there were proof of further demand still, it lies in the performances here of that sad company from the wilds of Bessarabia, its pre-World War II staging occasionally redeemed by surprisingly good voices.  Why is the Arts Council incapable of acknowledging that opera is a popular art form and not just the extravagant pleasure of an upper crust that it unreasonably despises?

Is opera so expensive?  If we count the number who see it in a year and compare the duration and quality of the experience with the few seconds spent by a similar number in the company of a sculpture by Anish Kapoor or Antony Gormley, both erstwhile Arts Councillors, both in the receipt of Arts Council funds, we can only conclude that in depth, intensity and duration, opera offers far better value – does any one of us know anyone who has experienced the cathartic effects of Der Rosenkavalier when confronted by a Gormley cast of his naked self or one of Kapoor’s vain mirrors?    When a single contemporary sculpture – or a painting for that matter, or a preserved shark or an unmade bed – commonly costs half a million, a million, or any larger figure that can be plucked out of the air, the subsidies resentfully given to the opera begin to seem, if not cheap, certainly inexpensive, and without the disadvantage of permanently littering the landscape with monstrosities that have, alas, more lasting qualities than Ozymandias. Which would we rather have for half a million, another Gormley Angel or a new production of The Tales of Hoffmann?  In passing, I feel compelled to ask why we must still have an Arts Council when we now have a ministry, the DCMS – two bureaucratic bodies to bugger our aesthetic lives?

Bring back Maecenas and the Medici, I say – men who knew what and why they wanted, and could pay for it.  We have one in the visual arts, a man brave enough to have been doing the duty of the Tate Modern for the past twenty years, shrewd enough to damn the Turner Prize as pseudocontroversial claptrap, but where is the Charles Saatchi of opera?