Retort #25 The State of Patronage

Why private gifts for the arts should not be a political instrument.


A few months before the banking crisis resulted in a recession in the autumn of 2008, I published my study into the rise of patronage in the Netherlands.[1] At the time, private donations to art institutions were an upcoming trend among some large cultural organisations in the Randstad (a collection of major Dutch metropolitan areas). Up to that point, the cultural sector focussed mainly on corporate sponsorship and a few traditional endowment funds for private contributions. In addition to the directors of the Stedelijk Museum and the Concertgebouw, among others, I also spoke to major donors and fund directors for De Nieuwe Mecenas (The New Maecenas). At the time, I was optimistic about this development: if interested parties consciously make private contributions to the arts based on their wealth, in addition to government subsidies, this would lead to more active involvement. In this way, societal support for culture would increase—who could object to that?

It is now almost fifteen years later, and much has changed in the cultural system and the ways in which art is financed. Traditionally, the division of roles is such that the government facilitates (buildings, staff, basic operating costs), and private funding adds to this basis with contributions for temporary projects, experiments, and (additional) art purchases. This division of roles is changing drastically: government funding is becoming increasingly project-based, while large endowment funds more often prefer multi-year support in order to achieve a greater ‘impact’. In particular, the subsidy stipulation imposed by politics to raise more private money has a considerable influence on the art system and related policies. With the conflation of public and private parties and their funding streams, damaging consequences lurk, including the further marginalisation of the economic position of artists, the elitisation of exhibitions and visitor groups, and damaging of the trust between governments and art institutions.

The question is therefore what influence the current forms of patronage in the Netherlands have on the art field, and whether that influence is desirable. And what can the art sector itself do to create a more balanced and fair art climate?

What Is Patronage?

I consider patronage to be monetary donations and gifts of goods (especially works of art). Private museums founded by art collectors do not fundamentally constitute patronage and are therefore not considered here.[2] Corporate sponsorship seeks return on investment and is thus not a donation,[3] and donations from charity lotteries also fall outside the purview of this study.[4] Originally, patronage was understood to mean the direct support of an artist by a patron by offering them financial security and at the same time freedom in the artistic process.[5] Because this is almost non-existent or hidden from the view of outsiders, this is not part of this research.

Types of Patronage

Before we look at the current state of patronage, we will first take a bird’s eye view of the most common forms of donations in art. In 2008, I noted several emerging developments: the rise of private giving circles, larger individual donors (so-called ‘major donors’), individual founders—often entrepreneurs—of large endowment funds, and forms of public-private partnership.

1. Collective Forms of Giving

Friends associations at cultural institutions have existed for a long time. They are often separate foundations with their own boards and have a relatively large number of members who make a fixed annual contribution. However, they often do not cover the institutions’ costs because various kinds of discounts and receptions are offered. Partly in order to bring their policy in line with that of the art organisation receiving the funding, in the past fifteen years these associations have therefore often been dismantled and converted into donor circles with a higher contribution.

The highest contributions are generated by exclusive giving circles. Since 2011, the focus has shifted strongly towards these so-called ‘major donors’; exclusive receptions are organised for their members and personal service is offered.[6] The circles for highly educated, wealthy, or high-earning millennials (up to about 40 years old) are new, such as those at the Stedelijk Museum (Young Stedelijk) and the National Opera & Ballet (Young Patrons Circle).[7] Members of these kinds of circles are usually sought through so-called ‘peer-to-peer’ recruitment, in which a donor asks a friend to also become a member. This appears to be an effective recruitment method—and one that is less expensive for the art organisation—but it also means that such circles may be less accessible to people who do not belong to that social or business network.

In contrast, crowdfunding is a form of collective giving that is an easily accessible channel for small donors. They often donate a relatively larger share of their income than the wealthy. The platform Voordekunst (For the Arts) did not yet exist in 2008, but has quickly gained popularity since then. A big advantage is that this offers makers in particular the opportunity to make contact with their donors. However, the question remains as to how to build lasting relationships with the frequently one-time donors so that they will return and donate more often.

2. Individual Givers

Many donations take place behind closed doors and remain out of sight, unless donors are mentioned by name on plaques, the names of galleries, or in annual reports. Whilst the largest donors preferred anonymity until twenty years ago, that has since changed radically. Today, donors seem more aware that visibility provides them with valuable so-called cultural capital.[8]

A popular hybrid form of individual giving is the named fund, which occupies a middle ground between a small endowment fund and a private donation. It is important, however, that the investment be spent in full within a number of years: only financial institutions benefit from dormant money.[9] Giving openly has the advantage that it can inspire others to give as well. However, it is crucial that not the giver but rather the goal of giving is central.

For museums, those who donate valuable works of art are often the most important donors. This is done by artists and gallerists, but especially by wealthy private collectors. The exorbitant prices in the art market make museums increasingly dependent on their generosity. Although the Dutch Cultural Governance Code states that money and influence must be kept separate, art collectors are sometimes rewarded for their generosity with a seat on a museum’s supervisory board or are given it in the hopes that they will donate—which might lead to a conflict of interests.[10] In addition, the individualisation of giving can hinder its effectiveness: collective donations can be spent according to jointly established goals and therefore require less customisation.

3. Large Endowment Funds

In The New Maecenas, I signalled the trend that wealthy entrepreneurs often establish their own, often well-endowed funds.[11] It’s appealing to founders that they can sit on the board of directors and thus have significant influence on where the money goes—something that isn’t possible in the case of paying taxes.[12] Examples of funds that donate to art and culture among other causes are the VandenEnde Foundation and the Turing Foundation, and more recently the Hartwig Art Foundation and the Droom en Daad Foundation. These individual endowment funds aim to complement government policy, but not to fill the gaps left by politics. In practice, they often follow national cultural policy to a considerable extent, for example by setting comparable requirements for public outreach and income raised independently. It is notable that these funds almost exclusively contribute to temporary projects that require additional effort from the receiving organisations; providing for operating costs is often taboo for funds. It is also striking and worrying that individual artists and freelance cultural workers cannot apply to these funds, even though they are the engine of the art sector.

4. Public-private partnership (PPP)

PPP is a strongly government-stimulated development which partly for this reason has also taken off in the cultural sector within the past fifteen years. When I was doing research for The New Maecenas, this trend was emerging tentatively. At the time, the Design Museum that ING Real Estate was supposed to build in the Zuidas area in exchange for cheaper land for its other construction projects served as an example. The danger is that financial setbacks will be attributed to governments instead of private partners. There was indeed a risk: due to the financial crisis, the Design Museum did not materialise, despite all the agreements.

Willingness to Give and Bottlenecks

Patronage, like all charity, is closely related to the economic conjuncture and the political whims that it causes. As is widely known, the year 2008 ushered in a protracted recession, which prompted the further dismantling of the welfare state: major cuts were made, especially to care, education, and culture. Starting in 2011, the national government scrapped no less than a quarter of the culture budget, followed by further cutbacks on the municipal level from 2015 onwards. Whilst less budget was made available, art organisations were at the same time required to generate more ‘output’ (productions). This led to a disproportionate share of flex-workers in the sector: no less than two-thirds of all cultural workers, estimated at about 170,000 professionals, currently work as freelancers. Artists were also hit hard by the cutbacks: the Wet Werk en Inkomen Kunstenaars (Work and Income for Artists Act) was cancelled in 2012, whereby they could no longer receive additional funds to cover living expenses.[13]

At the same time as the cultural cutbacks, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science launched a campaign to encourage art organisations to attract more private funding.[14] Expectations were high: just like in the United States, cultural institutions were to become more enterprising and the wealthy more generous. Additional tax subsidies for donors were intended to further stimulate this policy.[15] Without having investigated the willingness to give in the Netherlands, a disproportionate amount was expected from private donors. The opportunistic assumption was that they would compensate—at least in part—for the slashed government subsidies, provided art organisations tried hard enough to find and motivate them. The campaign goals were supported by an additional 25% tax reduction for cultural donations.

Several obstacles were overlooked. The most prominent is that when the government itself cuts back on a sector, it becomes less attractive to potential donors. When the main financier (partially) withdraws, it damages confidence in the stability and continuity of museums, venues, theatre companies, and orchestras. In fact, patronage was openly used by the national government as a political instrument to fund its own partial exit policy. But research has already shown that less subsidy does not lead to more private donations: the two are not related. In addition, citizens pay taxes, which should provide basic funding for public interests such as art and culture—in any case, buildings and staff. This principle is under increasing pressure. Nevertheless, from a donor’s point of view, a donation is always in addition to fundamental support from public funds.

Moreover, the share of private money should not be overestimated: it forms only a fraction of the billions in taxes collected each year.[16] Our public art organisations are, on average, still largely financed by these public funds.[17] The most important private contributions are invariably revenue from visitors: proceeds from tickets sold to art lovers.

The willingness to give is also related to the economic situation of donors themselves. This became apparent during the economic recession of 2008-2014: donations to charities fell sharply.[18] This occurred again during the COVID-19 pandemic: museums and concert halls reported cancellations from donors and sponsors or requests for postponement of payment. In addition, donations are unpredictable because they vary according to donors’ changing interests.

Private donors’ choices cannot be controlled and should not be: they are free to do as they please. Unlike government subsidies, private donations fall outside the democratic process.[19] Individual choices also influence the art system and related policy; thus, donated money is not neutral.

Willingness to give is also increasingly related to the recipient’s business operations and the influence that the donor can exert on them, although private endowment funds are not very transparent about this side of their objectives and working methods. The trend of the past decade has mainly been to focus on one’s own ‘mission’, with an increasing emphasis on a business-like way of operating that is also imposed on beneficiary organisations, for example having to demonstrate ‘impact’. Due to the strategy of return on investment, some large funds therefore prefer multi-year financial support for institutions, with the intention of helping them ‘stand on their own two feet’. As the government neglects artists and cultural workers, endowment funds also follow this policy. Another problem is that these funds’ emphasis on temporary projects is costing art organisations money, which in turn leads to underpayment and oversupply in programming.[20]

Structural Problems

At the end of The New Maecenas, I made a series of suggestions for how to create a balanced patronage policy. Two pieces of advice were as follows: the government should prove itself to be a trustworthy partner of private parties and ensure the continuity of basic funding in the arts. I also indicated the importance of a clear vision of the division of roles between public and private funding streams and the appropriate influence on art policy for each of these roles. It is precisely these two points on which art policy, but also the cultural sector itself, has so far fallen short. Since the eighties, the government has been working to place entire sectors at a distance. Part of this is the privatisation of the national museums and the semi-public culture funds (Mondriaan Fonds and Fonds Podiumkunsten), among others. Since then, so-called ‘cultural entrepreneurship’ has become dominant. Over the past decade, confusion has only grown as the government has partially shifted its responsibilities to private parties, purely for financial reasons. Major shortages have arisen, especially at the municipal level: because cultural facilities—unlike Jeugdzorg (youth care) which was transferred in 2015—is not one of municipalities’ legally required tasks, art funding is increasingly cut. This has far-reaching consequences, since municipalities jointly provide two-thirds of the total art budgets.[21] They often defend these cutbacks with the argument that art organisations should just become more enterprising and try to raise more private funding. The result is that the public—the taxpayer—no longer has any insight into the funding streams of its public art institutions.

An accompanying problem is that the support of patronage usually goes to institutions and not directly to artists and makers, whilst they are the engine of the arts. Project subsidies for institutions also provide little indirect benefit to them. Patronage therefore seldom compensates for the underpayment of artists and freelancers in the sector: payment belongs to the set of basic costs which governments should cover. Donors appear—like the majority of the public, incidentally—to be unaware of this over-exploitation of two-thirds of cultural workers and the fatal consequences brain drain, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has had on talent development and public exhibitions.

The sector has offered surprisingly little protest against this structural erosion. Where were the demonstrations and lobbying when libraries and music schools became ‘autonomous’ or were cut back on and closed? It is precisely these cultural facilities that form the foundation of the art system and are most widely used in society. Neglect of cultural education ultimately affects the entire chain from maker to audience. These essential but hardly photogenic basic facilities barely attract private donors, unfortunately.

This indicates a fundamental problem with patronage: far from all stakeholders in the art world have access to private donations to the same extent. In theory, private funds aim to be a counterpart to government policy, but in practice, a significant portion of their money goes to the same leading art organisations. After all, they have already been ‘approved’ by the subsidy provider and offer more prestige. The larger ‘grade-A’ institutions in the Randstad thus receive the lion’s share of both government subsidies and donations, while smaller institutions are often left behind—the so-called Matthew effect. What does this mean for the spread of culture, the new crop of artists and cultural workers, and equality and fairness in the sector?

Role Confusion Complete

In recent decades, government policy around art financing has been based on the false assumption that art organisations can support themselves as long as they work efficiently enough. There is a tension here between the pressure from the government as the subsidy provider to seek collaboration with private parties—so-called match-funding or co-financing—and the core value of the autonomy of art. It is not surprising that these institutions are not keen on checking up on the nature and origin of these donations. This has led to dodging ethical issues and turning a blind eye to ‘artwashing’.[22]

An essential problem of the resulting role confusion is that governments themselves no longer understand what their tasks are and are not in working together with private parties. A recent example is the future privately funded museum (more of an exhibition space) that the Hartwig Art Foundation wants to open in the former courthouse in Amsterdam’s Zuidas. The city council approved a plan to purchase that building from the Rijksvastgoedbedrijf (Central Government Real Estate Agency) for €29 million. This, while the lender of this endowment fund, Rob Defares, owner of stock trading company IMG, is a billionaire and could easily finance it himself.[23]

In the guise of a boost for the cultural life of the city, the municipal government in fact acts as a patron for a private party, paid for with public funds. In addition to being an improper use of public funds, it is also a short-sighted policy: what if this private party decides to close down its exhibition space after a number of years? The municipality seems to express excessive confidence in private initiatives. After all, many private initiatives in the culture sector, including museums, cease to exist when the founder thinks the costs are too high—and heirs often don’t want to finance dad’s expensive hobby at all.[24]

In Conclusion

As a result of these developments, politics has less say over the cultural sector, as relatively less subsidy and more private financing become a crucial foundation for the sector, resulting in a certain de-politicisation.[25] That does damage to the democratic quality of the entire sector. The normalisation of finding private money to justify public funding also points to a creeping crisis of faith between government and the arts.

In order to support public influence on cultural policy, it is first of all important that governments take responsibility and finance the cultural infrastructure more generously using public funds, recognising that private donations cannot offer continuity. Funding for the most important sets of tasks, including education and research, cannot simply be left to private parties.

Herein lies an important role for the art sector itself to more actively promote the public values and interests of the arts. In the past decade, there has been surprisingly little resistance to the cutbacks and ramped-up subsidy requirements. Art organisations unscrupulously exploit their own people, especially artists and freelancers. Moreover, today’s return-orientated policy makes it more difficult to achieve mutual solidarity, which is especially necessary now.

In line with this, a much-needed reassessment of the value of public as well as private shares in the sector is necessary. Given private money’s relatively modest contribution to culture, compared to that of public funding, private donors receive disproportionate attention and the importance of their contribution is overestimated—especially in the media. This overestimation is a government-imposed vision that intends to legitimise its austerity policy. Adjusting to realistic expectations is necessary: the Netherlands is a small country with a modest capacity for giving.

When private money serves to legitimise subsidies, there is a risk that art organisations will lose their critical position and not be able to place limits on the involvement that donors sometimes claim, including on supervisory boards. An accompanying risk is the increasing elitisation that larger donors and privileged giving circles can bring about. Excessive attention and open appreciation for them can threaten public support for art and culture because ‘ordinary’ visitors get the feeling that they are less welcome. This can not only hinder the broadening of the audience, but also damage the trust between citizens and institutions.

The essence of patronage is to support that which receives little backing from public funds. Now, the majority of donations go to larger art institutions that relatively speaking need it the least. Growing inequality in the art sector is worrisome: between larger and smaller organisations, between those in the Randstad and those in other regions, between professionals in salaried positions and their flex-working colleagues.

Crowdfunding seems like a good option for makers, but the success of their campaigns depends to a great extent on their PR skills and how photogenic their projects are, which means that only some artists can raise funds this way.

The so-called ‘proactive’ policy of endowment funds—‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’, by the Ammodo Foundation and Droom en Daad Foundation, among others—can result in intensive involvement in the structure and objectives of art institutions, while their contribution is considerably smaller than the government’s. Nonetheless, some funds determine to a considerable extent which artistic endeavours do or don’t get the chance to find an audience. Moreover, endowment funds often regard art production as a government task, while it is precisely here that they could make a difference: they too have a responsibility for a healthier and fairer cultural sector.

Urgent Questions for the Art Sector Itself

How can forms of cooperation between government, private donors, endowment funds, art organisations, and artists be developed that favour a clear and balanced division of roles? It is certain that the art sector in its entirety must take the lead in this respect and must formulate a vision and approach that appeals to all parties.

The guiding principle should be the restoration of equality between all types of players in the art field, in the interest of the entire chain from maker to audience. Patronage should benefit artists and the army of project-based cultural workers to a much greater extent if it is to form a pillar under the art system. It is up to the sector itself to point the way for donors by promoting and respecting mutual solidarity at all levels.

In addition to the structural and consistent introduction of fair pay, it is primarily the task of larger institutions with many donors to fulfil their role as intermediary in this respect. After all, without artists, there is no art, no content for all those museums and venues. This implies that the institutions in particular have a considerable responsibility in the pre-financing of exhibitions, concerts, and performances. One of the ways to give shape to this responsibility is to pursue a more commission-orientated policy in which artists and makers are supported during the development process with the help of private parties and endowment funds, after which the results can be exhibited and possibly purchased. Institutions are ideally suited to connect ‘their’ donors with indispensable makers and to guide that process with expertise. After all, private funding is especially suited to supporting artistic (talent) development from the bottom up: the classic role of patronage.

Artists and other cultural workers themselves can also do more; there are many of them, but they underestimate their power. Instead of peddling their wares and competing with each other—resulting in ever-lower pay—it is high time they join forces to exert more influence with the aim of a necessary transition to a healthier and more sustainable art climate with a good balance between public and private financing.

This text was translated from the Dutch original by Felix van der Vorst and Hannah Vernier.



[1] Steenbergen, De Nieuwe Mecenas. Cultuur en de terugkeer van het particuliere geld (The New Maecenas: Culture and the return of private money, BusinessContact, 2008).

[2] Collector-entrepreneurs who found museums are sometimes capricious: owning a museum is an expensive hobby, and tax benefits are often followed by rapid closure. In addition, setting up a showcase for one’s own collection is not selfless. As collector Rattan Chadha said, ‘Starting your own museum is not an act of philanthropy.’ NB: These kinds of museums often benefit from the same public subsidy funds via project subsidies—only Museum De Pont finances everything essentially on its own, also without a circle of ‘friends’ of the museum. Government museums thus receive a smaller piece of the pie.

[3] Corporate sponsorship is not a gift; it expects something in return, such as receptions in the museum or seats in the concert hall, which costs art institutions money.

[4] Lotteries work with money from individual ticket buyers. Half of the proceeds are donated to charities; the BankGiroLoterij exists especially for culture but donates mainly to large museums and monuments.

[5] The namesake of the Dutch term mecenas (patronage) is the Roman Gaius Julius Maecenas (70-8 BCE) who financially supported the poets Horace and Virgil.

[6] See Olav Velthuis, among others, on ‘private funding’s hold on the museum’: https://pure.uva.nl/ws/files/1235122/117465_Metropolis_M_Magazine_2008_No3_Amerikaanse_Toestanden.pdf.

[7] For younger donors in particular, wealth can also consist of social capital, such as in the case of online influencers and people with an influential network.

[8] The terms ‘cultural’ and ‘social capital’ were coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his book Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste (1979).

[9] See Sigrid Hemels’s dissertation Door de muze omhelsd. Een onderzoek naar de inzet van belastingsubsidies voor kunst en cultuur in Nederland (Embraced by the Muse: A study of the use of tax subsidies for art and culture in the Netherlands, 2005).

[10] This took place at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Kunstmuseum in Den Haag, and the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, among others.

[11] Endowment funds such as VSBfonds and Fonds21 that are related to financial institutions are not taken into account here.

[12] Donations to organisations with ANBI status are tax deductible. Donating to such an organisation of your choice is often more attractive than paying taxes, while the costs are the same.

[13] The WWIK was an act that was in effect from 1st January 2005 to 1st January 2012. It offered artists the opportunity to receive a supplement to their income for a maximum of four years within a ten-year period if they could not support themselves with their artistic work. This enabled aspiring artists to look for an economically sustainable practice after completing the art academy. The WWIK was the successor to the Wet inkomensvoorziening kunstenaars (Income Provision for Artists, WIK) and the well-known Beeldende Kunstenaars Regeling (Provision for Visual Artists, BKR).

[14] Under the motto ‘Cultuur, daar geef je om’ (Culture, that’s what you care about).

[15] The Geefwet (Donations Act) in particular offers an additional advantage for donations to art and culture, because 125% (25% extra) can be written off of income and wealth taxes. The periodic donation spread over five years offers a 100% deduction.

[16] Data on donations to art and culture are only on the basis of a sample and are collected biannually as part of the study ‘Geven in Nederland’ (Giving in the Netherlands). Only 3-5% of all charitable donations go to the arts.

[17] All spending on culture accounts for about 0.4% of the gross domestic product. Incidentally, for many years there have been calls to raise this to 1%. See Feiten en cijfers over kunst, cultuur en beleid in Nederland (Facts and figures on art, culture, and policy in the Netherlands, Boekmanstichting, 2019).

[18] The crisis also led to a decline in corporate sponsorship, which had until then been dominant in terms of private contributions to culture, especially in the Netherlands. The banks that sponsored and sponsor art museums could—perhaps because they often have an art collection themselves—no longer justify their losses and the reputational damage as a result of the banking crisis to continue financing ostentatious sponsorship activities.

[19] See for example Rob Reich, ‘Repugnant to the whole idea of democracy? On the role of foundations in democratic societies’ (American Political Science Association, 2016), https://inequality.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Reich-paper-2.pdf.

[20] Remarkably, a number of large funds joined forces during the COVID-19 pandemic and temporarily dropped the policy of not providing funding for operating costs or supported museums and venues in paying for the adjustments to their buildings.

[21] This includes in particular the costs associated with cultural buildings and their use.

[22] On so-called artwashing, see for example Timo Demollin, De fuik van filantropie (The Philanthropy Trap), 2021: https://www.platformbk.nl/de-fuik-van-filantropie/. See also Linsey McGoey, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy (Verso, 2015).

[23] See for example Steenbergen in NRC: https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2021/09/02/dat-nieuwe-museum-is-een-wel-heel-brutale-actie-a4056879.

[24] See for example Georgina Adams, The Rise and Rise of the Private Art Museum (2021). Another example of PPP in which private donors receive (too large) an advantage is the Collection Building of the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, for which the De Verre Bergen Foundation, owned by the family of Rotterdam industrialists the Van der Vorms, paid €20 million in exchange for their own floor for their private collection. It’s much cheaper than having to erect a whole building, critics say.

[25] Data from 2019, collected by sample, via ‘Aanbiedingsbrief bij Onderzoeksrapport over Geven en werven in de culturele sector in Nederland 2011-2020’ (Cover letter of the research report on donation and fundraising in the cultural sector in the Netherlands 2011-2020), Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sciences, https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/kamerstukken/2021/12/13/aanbiedingsbrief-bij-onderzoeksrapport-geven-en-werven-in-de-culturele-sector-in-nederland-2011-2020.

About Renée Steenbergen

Renée Steenbergen is an art historian and independent journalist, regularly publishing on current cultural affairs with NRC. She is a board member of Platform BK. From 2014 until 2018, she was a senior research fellow in Patronage Studies at the University of Utrecht. In January of 2023, her book on the necessary transitions in the cultural sector was published under the title 'De Kunst van Anders: 6 voorstellen voor culturele innovatie'.