Art patronage implies a relationship between a patron and a client, usually associated with the provision of funds, support or protection for the artistic enterprise.
Although there are examples of art patronage in many ancient cultures, historically, the earliest trace of official art patronage is found with the Roman Empire. A system referred to as clientela or clientelismo indicates the protection of the client or clients by a patron who usually holds a position of power. Traditionally, the clients were of a lower social class. The patron's resources were (and still are) much needed by the client, who, in turn, offers recognition, loyalty and honor. The patronus (patron) offered a combination of financial support as well as social and political protection.
Emperor Octavian and his political advisor, Gaius Maecenas, were responsible for the first focused art patronage. Octavian is widely known for the construction of the Ara Pacis in the 13th century BCE, and Maecenas for his avid support of the poetry of Virgil and Horace. The derivative word maecenate has the meaning of a patron of the arts.
Renaissance Italy, with its noblemen, merchants and church leaders, is believed to be the zenith of state art patronage. Centering on many Italian city-states, patronage of the arts was invested with the aim of promoting political and social positions and the prestige accruing. Production of magnificent classical works were funded by a system of patronage that permeated all levels of society. The Roman Catholic church was a dominant patron, involved in the creation of religious art and the building of churches, such as St. Peter's Basilica (1506).
The industrial revolution and the emergence of the working class, followed by the middle class's new interest in contemporary art, brought changes to art patronage. By the 20th century, a structured model was created, with patronage comprising either private or public support and funding. A wide range of arts initiatives became possible, with art patronage supplying means to artists, projects and institutions within media such as performing arts, film, visual arts, poetry and literature. Corporate funding provides a considerable presence in the market.
In contemporary culture, art patronage may exist for multiple reasons, including an appreciation of the arts, a method of entertainment or the enhancement of economic, social or political prestige.
Art policy in any government administration is linked to art patronage and culture. The more something is government-funded, so is it conventionally perceived to connected to tradition. Traditional versus new art is a debate that is raised, regarding who should fund the arts. The premise is that state funding is usually associated with heightened censorship. Grand scale museums and opera houses are generally established with state funding, with smaller experimental organizations related to new art often not receiving or not wishing to partake of conservative-related funding. Thus, arts administration policies and the debates about public-funded as opposed to private-funded endeavors continue. They are not only pertinent to who supports the arts, but also to the consequences arising out of being the recipient of particular types of funding. Corporate patronage, state or federal patronage and individual private patronage each carry a question of level of benefit.
Public art patronage is imbued with the potential for stricter censorship, which many artists reject. Some political and religious leaders suggest that public funding, in the case of uncensored work, might appear to endorse the content matter of inappropriate art. The American National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) was established as a federal funding body. Views have been mixed regarding the efficacy of the program. Critics maintain that an organization of that nature is suited to the preservation of classical art and national heritage. The NEA as an example of state patronage is considered to be aligned with traditional art forms and not conducive to new art.
Patrons of note from earlier times were predominantly from the aristocracy. With an inherent and educated training in the appreciation of art and culture, they became primary candidates to act as art patrons. Their wealth assisted greatly in the ability to perform this role. Religious leaders and institutions became a natural form of art patronage, as well. A dual function of religious art patronage combines the honor given to that which is divine and holy and the expression of that divinity through the art. Art patronage is also seen within the people, ordinary folk with a profound and meaningful connection to art. With the upsurge in a professional middle class, a new strata of art patrons and patronage has been fostered.