The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Patronage, by any other name

There was a time when individual patrons, most commonly among the aristocracy (and the higher-ranked members of the local dominant religion, where such enjoyed the privileges of de facto aristocrats) stepped in to provide funding for artists and scientists: for research that was not practical immediately and might indeed take some time to become practical and/or paying for itself; for creative aspects of humanity that always seem to be valued in the abstract and only rarely in currencies translatable to filling an artist's stomach. The process for establishing oneself under another's patronage could be as simple or as complex as having one's work seen by the future patron. The obligation of the patron was to cover the protegé's basic cost of living, with perhaps a occasional bonus of favour. In return, the scientist or artist was expected to demonstrate loyalty toward the patron, to work toward the patron's ends within their means, and occasionally to come up with an appropriate exhibition or two.

Today the system still exists, sometimes even in its original form: but most often by far the new patrons are corporations and governments, the aim is for much more immediate bottom-line pay-off (in parallel with how much faster the clock seems to be running upon us all), and what is not seen to have any direct fiscal value (eg. most art) is humoured along only insofar as public relations coax out a supplemental profit. Pride of display and pride in encouragement of talent have been thrust out of their place by end results, the sooner/more likely the better. The payment structure itself has morphed into the world of the foundation and the grant, the application a series of flaming hoops so unnecessarily convoluted that an increasing number of research institutions hire -- indeed, have to hire, lest this work take even further away from the core research -- full-time grant writers and researchers, or outsource to a specialised firm, for the specific purpose of finding out what is available and then draughting all the proposals ... and yet the purpose here is the same as it has always been: to get the work being done to be seen by the potential patron.

Whether the funding is private or government, patronage has become a major business ... and are its protegés, the ones around whom the entire system is centred, any better off for the transformation? Are they able to be any more focussed upon their work, without those annoying distractions such as bill collectors or trying to figure out how to pay that month's rent? Are they any more independent of their new patron, be it government programme or private enterprise, than they have ever been?

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