What internship season could learn from artistic patronage

Opinion by Melina Walling
March 3, 2019, 11:16 p.m.

What do Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci have in common? Before you say ‘the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,’ I’ll point out another similarity that I’ve been thinking about recently — they all had patrons who funded and supported their art. Which means that, in a nutshell, they weren’t writing applications and scouring the internet for paid summer internships.

Let me preface this article by saying that I am in no way comparing myself, as a humanities student just starting her artistic journey, to the great masters of the Italian Renaissance. Nor am I suggesting that I don’t want an internship (trust me, I really do). I also recognize how lucky I am to be studying humanities at a place like Stanford, where I get to work in close proximity with incredible professors and other passionate students. I already feel like I have a leg up in my creative education, and for that, I am immensely grateful.

However, as the humanities internship season enters full swing, I have found myself reflecting more and more on the system facing young career-seeking writers, historians, filmmakers, fine artists and other “fuzzies.” Starting in the fall of sophomore year, for instance, one such student might quickly discover that most of the opportunities at the career fair are not for them. They may later realize that, in order to have the work experience necessary to apply for the job they really want, they must first work many hours at either an extracurricular student organization or at an entry-level internship (either of which may or may not be paid).

Compare this process to that of patronage, which has existed for millennia. In this arrangement, a wealthy donor, often of the ruling class, sought out an artist to create work, while artists sought out patrons to fund them — a bygone form of networking. Royals often wanted art of a subject matter which, if not blatantly propagandistic, was at least intended to support royal authority. In return, artists would be given room and board and the funds to make a living. Much of the ancient art we see, like Greek vases or Egyptian statues, was a result of patronage, although many phenomenal artists remain anonymous due to the limited individual artistic recognition at that time.

But over the course of history, the system of patronage changed. The rise of Renaissance humanist ideals meant that individual artists were more likely to be remembered for their work. Established artists who were already supported by a patrons would often send out scouts to look for apprentices, and those apprentices were given the funding and mentorship they needed to grow their talent. Eventually, after completing an apprenticeship, a young, fully-fledged artist would have the opportunity to take a career-boosting commission. And it wasn’t just painters — Shakespeare, Mozart and countless other creative luminaries could not have produced their works without the aid of wealthy patrons.

As it turns out, there actually are a few modern-day patrons — wealthy benefactors and philanthropists who grant money and support to emerging artists. But they are few and far between, and they certainly do not support an artist from an early age, unlike the medieval apprentice system (unless, of course, we remember the parents who fill the role of patrons by providing art lessons and free meals well into their child’s adolescence). Still, for young adults on the threshold of gaining a new form of independence, entering this world can feel like looking out into a boundless space full of creative, occupational, financial and emotional uncertainty.

Some modern-day arts internships do provide room and board or a monetary stipend, but there is no equivalent for the apprentice and patronage system of the past. The “starving artist” has become a cliché, although breaking down that cliché reveals a challenging reality. Today, the choice between a job that pays a living wage and committing fully to one’s craft is accepted as a fact of life.

What’s more, the language and rhetoric surrounding this decision is incessantly disheartening. If humanities majors decide to pursue jobs that pay well but don’t necessarily align with their artistic or social goals, they are labelled “sellouts.” But if they decide to spend a summer at home working on personal projects rather than applying for competitive arts internships, it’s “not hustling enough.” And no matter what decision they make, they are told time and time again, by the people who came before them, that “artists aren’t in it for the money.”

In some ways, certainly, we are lucky to be free from the limitations of patronage. We don’t have to create art constrained by the whims of a ruler or by the artistic censorship of a religious or political organization. However, we have also lost the security of a system that takes artists’ goals and personal experiences into account. Sometimes, the statement made by art isn’t just about the artist — it also reveals the power and commitment of person or the organization willing to fund its potential.

Contact Melina Walling at mwalling ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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