The Great Disappearing Act

On confusion and accountability in the production complex, a report on the symposium The State of Patronage.


This essay is a report on The State of Patronage, a symposium organised by Platform BK, Framer Framed, and visual artist Timo Demollin on 30th April 2022. You can find the full program and video recordings of the symposium on this page.

It became obvious during The State of Patronage that the dominant and persistent misunderstanding concerning the position that visual art has in the socioeconomic fabric of current society and the relationship between the interests, ownership, and responsibilities involved. During the symposium, artists, researchers, private and institutional donors, fundraisers, and representatives of museums and presentation institutions took the podium, providing a randomly sampled overview of the infrastructure of interested parties in the art world. Who takes care of art in the quadrangle of patron, politics, capital, and the citizen?

More than one speaker repeatedly appealed to the broad responsibility of the government for financing the infrastructure of the arts (just as for healthcare, education, and social security). While this responsibility has eroded in recent decades, it gradually became clear that it has actually rarely existed for the arts as a political idea: the idea of private parties setting expectations of the public system out of self-interest and exerting influence on it has always been the expression and practice of (neo)liberal ideology. There also appear to be persistent misunderstandings concerning what art entails: is it a product or practice? In this document, several infrastructural relationships are examined on the basis of some of the contributions from the symposium.

During her panel discussion, Nous Faes spoke about the ‘short twentieth century’ which refers to the brief period (roughly up to the seventies) during which there was an ideologically led politics of the welfare state, in which the state bore responsibility for the arts and artists, and their existence was supported and valued by the community. The idea is that the government provides the structural foundation of provisions (including buildings and financial support for artists). This implied a limited and supporting role for patronage – gifts of money and donations of goods, without a direct quid pro quo – for example, in the financing of additional projects.

In this division of roles, the government takes the lead. Under pressure from neoliberal administrative rationale, this role division has gradually eroded: through liberalisation and under the headings of self-reliance and personal responsibility, the relationship between citizen and government (the ‘participation society’) became estranged, and many of the government’s tasks have been outsourced to commercial parties. Under that other heading, entrepreneurship, art institutions and artists were told to rely on their own initiative and a competitive attitude towards fundraising. Now that the demand for co-financing of public funds and private money seem to have become the norm in the sector, virtually all players are being pushed into a bureaucratic and competitive trap. The systemic problem that arises from this is that, whereas patronage was conjured up by the government as a safety net, it has been of little help to the arts in practice. Couldn’t all that energy spent competing for crumbs be spent more productively?[1]

In his spoken opinion piece, Roel Griffioen showed what the increased influence of patronage has led to. In recent years, more private museums and art funds have been started by private entrepreneurs (including Scheringa Museum, Museum Voorlinden, Droom&Daad Foundation, and the Hartwig Art Foundation), who not only finance projects but also take on a structural position with their private real estate. As a result, the influence of wealthy actors within the private-public dynamic is increasing. In this, the patron is not a selfless benefactor who takes over the infrastructural and politically, ideologically defined role of the government. Patrons enjoy tax benefits due to their activities and donations and can steer towards goals that are advantageous to them and shape the public space and discourse based on their own wishes with donations.[2] The central question of Griffioen’s opinion piece presented at the symposium was: ‘Quid pro quo, but what is the quo, exactly?’ This turned out to be difficult to answer because, as Griffioen states, an ethics of patronage remains lacking.

In her introductory lecture based on her piece written for Platform BK, Renée Steenbergen referred to the same confusion over the division of roles. She argues that a shift has taken place in which the government has moved from being a leader to a supporter: from an infrastructural administrator to a project manager, which is indicative of a general political tendency and the disappearance of the ability to exercise political leadership. It is striking that with the decentralisation of governmental tasks that started around 2015, in which responsibilities were transferred from the central government to municipalities, the duty to take care of the arts was not passed on to the municipalities as was the case with healthcare and school buildings. This suggests that art is not recognised as a social provision. According to Steenbergen, there is a tendency for the government to forget its original task and to place too much faith in private initiatives and the idea of private entrepreneurship.

This observation was aptly illustrated by the recent example of billionaire and patron Rob Defares, which was cited by Griffioen: at the patron’s request, the city council of Amsterdam bought the former courthouse on the Parnassusweg from the Central Government Real Estate Agency to house a new, private Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) financed by Defares. In this situation, the patron is accommodated by means of community funds, and can then run a museum however he pleases.[3] The benevolent government rewards a private initiative through its mediating and supporting capacity, but then fails to take a coherent leadership role. Citizens should be able to expect that much; after all, this is about the organisation of the cultural infrastructure and thus the management and construction of the cultural canon which is contained in the art institutions that maintain the collections and archives of cultural production. The authorship of cultural production is thus wilfully transferred to a wealthy elite. Patronage should not be seen as an age-old, isolated, and marginal phenomenon, but as one of the threads in the fabric of the production complex.

The iron grip that the wealthy holders of capital have on cultural production was explained in great detail by Liesbeth Bik. In her contribution, she took us along through old and contemporary examples of museums founded by patrons and funds that support cultural production, but do so exclusively by either arranging how their own art collection is displayed and made accessible or by directly setting the commercial conditions for how the collection is presented at existing institutions.

For example, the private collection of the married couple the Fishers led to a new wing of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a collection that the couple will only allow to be exhibited as a whole and under their direction. The couple also forced arrangements ensuring that the collection will remain part of SFMOMA for decades to come. In this way, the private collection forms a sustainable cultural canon, initiated and protected by a private initiative. In France, various cultural funds owned by international corporations (Louis Vuitton, Cartier, etc.) support cultural production – that is often presented as critical research – but ultimately do so to support their own collections, under their own direction, and in order to perpetuate and promote their own brands.

Thus, Bik pointed out the inextricable links between the art object and art appreciation as a core element of the artistic operation, which must also be transparent and clear in order to ensure a meaningful exchange. For SFMOMA, this lies to a large extent in their high-quality discursive programming, the content of which deals with our current condition – the societal organisation of life, work, and meaning through art.[4] In order to truly be able to speak of a productive exchange between art and public appreciation, the museum collection, as the object of that interpretive appreciation, including the history of its creation and a contextualisation of its canonisation, should at least be transparent and adaptable for this purpose.

At the SFMOMA, the permanent core collection and the uncritical position it occupies is an obstacle in this regard. That collection invariably represents only the values of individual taste and the cultural power that wealth and capital exercise over the cultural canon. So that which to the viewer often appears as public cultural expressions are unmistakably products with a private interest. This is the case at most museums to varying degrees. The idea that there can be disinterested, self-critical cultural representation within this system, or the creation of an inclusive cultural canon by means of visual art, is therefore untenable. Can complete transparency about the complex of interests, ethics, and finance offer any counterbalance in such a system?

The relevance of communal control of the cultural canon was also put forward by Olav Velthuis. As a researcher, he states that in recent decades, there has been an increase in private museums and wealthy patrons. According to Velthuis, the increasing wealth inequality and cultural inequality thus go hand in hand as global trends. The solution to this must be sought in either a more transparent relationship between the public and the patron, or in a radical reconstruction of the basic economic foundation that leads to the inequality. In the current state of affairs, the patron basically buys a legacy and immortality in societal memory with a museum as their tombstone by naming a museum collection, fund, or hall after themselves. According to Velthuis, the patron ‘gives something back to society’. This phrasing implies that something was ‘taken’ in the first place.

The question is, however, if it has ever been fundamentally different: the Van Abbe Museum, the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, the Kröller-Müller Museum, etc., are all examples of current practice, which now apparently only appears extreme in the downturn of social power relations, but is essentially unchangeable and only appears to fluctuate. In this sense, we have never fully arrived at a democratic infrastructure for the arts, and the feudal serfdom under church and crown was exchanged for that of private property. The fact that many of our museums and art collections were established in the past by wealthy private interests is important for a nuanced historical understanding.

But this insight means little if there is in actuality no accountability for the expanding influence of the contemporary ultra-wealthy elite whose wealth has been amassed partly thanks to neoliberal government policies that favour big business to the detriment of citizens and the public interest. Moreover, the Dutch national government and municipalities have for decades been financing the abovementioned museums, which can thus be categorised as publicly owned.

The perversity of the issue of distribution that Velthuis identified was further clarified in the other panel discussions. For example, it was explained how government subsidies are given less and less often as grants, but come with conditions attached, like adding a third source of financing – or of crowdfunding, with which the artists or institutions become marketing entrepreneurs on the market of incidental donors. This leads to more work and competition for a shrinking budget. Artists and institutions are forced to spend a substantial part of their means on organising the basic conditions for their activities (in the first place, their survival) and not on their art.

A striking case in point was put forth in the last panel discussion, by Stephanie Schuitemaker, director of Outset Netherlands, a private fundraising agency that matches patrons with art projects. She explained that Outset Contemporary Art Fund (the British parent company) now even plays a supporting role for artists by providing housing. As is now well known, cultural policy is closely linked to the urban policy of development and the instrumental role of art in the gentrification process.[5] Furthermore, this fund claims to select innovative, excellent, and experimental projects, and appreciates it when other partners are involved, especially subsidisers like the Modriaan Fund and presentation institutions and museums.[6]

In this way, a network based on mutual validation arises which makes the work of art possible. Subsidies are a part of this, a lubricant and resource within a liberal idea of entrepreneurship in a private-public market idea. The use of so-called qualities like innovation and experimentation fit seamlessly into this model; such private qualifications (Who decides what is innovative or experimental?) are easily absorbed within the neoliberal market economy.[7] That this is hardly a great economic model with which to battle forms of economic inequality has become very clear in recent years. On the contrary, it perpetuates and spreads inequality, as the housing crisis and the need for rent support demonstrate. Thus, in a private-public and liberal way, what was already wrong with the economic foundation is being repaired based on the same liberal ideology.

This mix of public and private (and the undermining of the public part) was once again made abundantly clear in the spoken opinion piece by Helleke van den Braber, the recently established academic chair of Patronage Studies at Utrecht University. The academic position is meant to conduct research into and to promote patronage. This position was made possible in part by the efforts of the foundation Geef om Cultuur, that brought together donations by private funds (the Prins Bernhard Cultural Fund, Bankgiro Lottery, and the VandenEnde Foundation). This means that this scientific research is largely funded by the private sector itself.[8] Van den Braber’s presentation resembled a point-by-point advice session for artists and institutions on how to deal with patrons smartly and break down the psychological barrier of dependence: ‘Be aware of your value and try to communicate “value” beyond the fiscal.’ Instead of offering a fundamental analysis of the situation itself as a step towards possible change, the audience was mainly encouraged and told how to deal with the current situation.

Returning to and focussing on Bik’s statement from earlier, in which the relationship between the art object and the possibility to critically reflect upon it as the societal value of art, it is worthwhile to consider how Stedelijk Museum director Rein Wolfs reacted to the creation of Defares’ MCA. In an interview with the Volkskrant,[9] Wolfs claimed to welcome the new initiative: Amsterdam was supposedly big enough for two large art museums. Moreover, the Stedelijk focusses on its own (public) collection, while the MCA focusses mainly on the development, production, and presentation of new works of art. Herein lies a paradoxical denial of mutual dependence, a denial that they operate within the same economy of production.

After all, the presentation institution the MCA derives critical and social validity from the art works that are shown there, and vice versa, as the works are thus more likely to end up in national collections. The market and cultural value of the works made at the MCA are also directly related to the Stedelijk Museum. Though the Stedelijk invokes its function as canonical collector and is therefore subject to a considerable degree of public accountability, it also has less financial clout than museums with private capital, especially in relation to the creation of the collection and the cultural archive.

Nevertheless, Wolfs remains silent about the impending confusion of responsibilities surrounding canon formation, let alone the lack of public oversight and the public-private construction on which the MCA is based. The fact that Defares has undeniably been of great importance as a patron to the Stedelijk itself likely plays a considerable part in this. The dire position of public institutions that have been made dependent on private money thus translates to an inability to engage in favour of a system that is accountable to the public and to speak out against the influence of private capital or to recognise the link between the two. The practice of art is not only the object or the collection, as has already been established – it lies in the total organisation and quality of the infrastructure.[10] To be able to recognise this, it is essential that everyone first recognise that they are themselves part of that infrastructure.

In short, The State of Patronage made it clear that there is much confusion concerning roles among stakeholders in positioning, valuing, and supporting the arts. Therefore, good and disruptive donation practices exist side by side in an amorphous whole that can hardly be held accountable on the basis of equality and democratic values. As a result, disruptive donors have free reign, recipients of donations are at the mercy of arbitrariness, and responsible donors – who are desperately needed to keep the art sector alive – unintentionally end up being seen as suspect. Resolving this confusion was not explicitly discussed during The State of Patronage, but it is possible to draw conclusions based on what was said over the course of that afternoon. The key lies in simultaneously lifting the veil that hides the network of interests and developing a set of assessment criteria within this network.

Quid pro quo. But the giver of a gift often presents themselves as selfless, as a non-stakeholder. However, examples such as the SFMOMA and other private institutions show that behind this claim of disinterestedness often lurk a host of interests, from ‘soft’ interests such as acquiring cultural capital or directing public funds, to ‘hard’ interests like stimulating real estate development. In order to be able to assess which interests are justifiable, it is crucial that the existence of these interests is recognised and made transparent. Who expects what in return for a given donation must be made clear and publicly available in advance for all to see. An extension of the Good Governance Code, drafting a new code specifically for patronage, or developing best practices for contracts could be instrumental to this end.

Transparency alone is not enough to solve the current confusion of roles. After all, openness about intentions and interests cannot right the wrong of a disruptive act. Therefore, ethically considered assessment criteria must be developed. Several obvious principles emerged at The State of Patronage. It is up to recipients to set their boundaries, such as categorically refusing money from the fossil fuel or weapons industries. Donors should try to enact ‘fair practice’ and respect the freedom of the artistic process or cultural programming that they are funding. Public funds are responsible for ensuring that public functions do not become dependent on private funding, starting by abandoning required fund matching.

It is clear that these fledgling principles need to be further developed before they can be applicable in practice. Therefore, we hope that artists, institutions, donors, funds, and governments will continue the discussion about an ethics of patronage in the future. The subject of patronage remains too taboo. The (experience of) dependence is too great and it’s a sensitive subject. Breaking this taboo is not airing dirty laundry, but rather is a part of a discussion that is critical for the functioning of public responsibilities in the sector.



[1] Characteristics that can be considered neoliberal: fewer tasks assigned to the central government, deregulation in favour of business and international trade, decentralisation of implementation, and a financial-economic politics that promotes entrepreneurship.

[2] Lietje Bauwens and Jack Segbars, ‘Art and (anti-) gentrification in Rotterdam – On urban politics as artistic practice’ (‘Kunst en (anti-)gentrificatie in Rotterdam – over stedelijke politiek als artistieke praktijk’), Metropolis M, 10th March, 2022. URL: http://www.metropolism.com/nl/opinion/46209_kunst_en_anti_gentrificatie_in_rotterdam_over_stedelijke_politiek_als_artistieke_praktijk

[3] A noteworthy detail is that Beatrix Ruf is next in line to become the new artistic leader. She recently left the Stedelijk Museum due to an alleged conflict of interests. Ruf was both the manager and the curator of the (public) collection, as well as the business representative of the owner of parts of that collection. Private interests (of Ruf and her international clients), the interests of third parties (donors to the collection), and the public interest (the community, the taxpayer) mingled unimpeded, coming together in the position of the artistic director and curator of the most important collection of modern and contemporary art in the Netherlands. Whereas Ruf was at first sacked because of the museum’s codes that aim to keep business and public interests separate, she will now become an important actor in a system in which the diametric opposite of precisely those codes is taking place: in this case, it is not an institution that must give a public accounting, but rather it concerns the freedom of entrepreneurship.


[4] Rancière argues that the organisation of exchange between making and assigning meaning (poiesis-aisthesis) qualitatively forms the basis of the organisation of art as a democratic qualitative value.

[5] Roel Griffioen, ‘Bread and Circuses: Art as a cog in the machinery of the real estate firm’ (‘Brood en spelen. Kunst als schakel in het vastgoedbedrijf’), Metropolis M, Number 1, 2022.

[6] Here, an example was mentioned: the project Court for Intergenerational Climate Crimes (2021-2022), presented by Framer Framed (which also served as the location for the symposium), which was attractive for Outset to contribute to financially because it also received support from the Van Abbe Museum.

[7] See Gerald Raunig’s analysis in: ‘Creative Industries as Mass Deception’, in Gerald Raunig, Gene Ray, & Ulf Wuggenig (eds), Critique of Creativity: Precarity, Subjectivity and Resistance in the ‘Creative Industries’, MayFlyBooks, London, 2011.

[8] The board of the foundation includes Alexander Ramselaar, financial expert in cultural real estate and owner of Backing Grounds, an agency that provides advice on financing real estate for cultural purposes. The advisory board includes Joop Caldenborgh, owner and director of the private Voorlinden Museum in Wassenaar. See: http://geefomcultuur.nl/organisation/

[9] Anna van Leeuwen, ‘Amsterdam Wants a New Private Museum for Contemporary Art in the Zuidas’ (‘Amsterdam wil op de Zuidas een nieuw particulier museum voor hedendaagse kunst’, de Volkskrant, 28th August 2021. URL: https://www.volkskrant.nl/cultuur-media/amsterdam-wil-op-de-zuidas-een-nieuw-particulier-museum-voor-hedendaagse-kunst~b0176ad3/

[10] Dave Beech, ‘Incomplete Decommodification: Art, State Subsidy and Welfare Economics’, PARSE, Sweden, Issue 2, The Value of Contemporary Art, 2015. URL: https://parsejournal.com/article/incomplete-decommodification/

About Jack Segbars

Jack Segbars is an artist and writer, who was one of the co-founders of Platform BK. Next to his praxis as visual artist, Segbars regularly writes reviews and articles on art and art-related subjects for Metropolis M., Open!, and PARSE, among other outlets.