Patronage is the support, encouragement, privilege, or financial aid that an organization or individual bestows to another. In the history of art, arts patronage refers to the support that kings, popes and the wealthy have provided to artists such as musicians, painters, and sculptors. It can also refer to the right of bestowing offices or church benefices, the business given to a store by a regular customer, and the guardianship of saints. The word "patron" derives from the (ラテン語:''patronus'') ("patron"), one who gives benefits to his clients (see Patronage in ancient Rome).
In some countries the term is used to describe political patronage, which is the use of state resources to reward individuals for their electoral support. Some patronage systems are legal, as in the Canadian tradition of the Prime Minister to appoint senators and the heads of a number of commissions and agencies; in many cases, these appointments go to people who have supported the political party of the Prime Minister. As well, the term may refer to a type of corruption or favoritism in which a party in power rewards groups, families, ethnicities for their electoral support using illegal gifts or fraudulently awarded appointments or government contracts.〔For a recent study of political patronage in the People's Republic of China, see Hillman, Ben. (''Patronage and Power: Local State Networks and Party-state Resilience in Rural China'' ) Stanford University Press, 2014.〕
From the ancient world onward, patronage of the arts was important in art history. It is known in greatest detail in reference to medieval and Renaissance Europe, though patronage can also be traced in feudal Japan, the traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms, and elsewhere—art patronage tended to arise wherever a royal or imperial system and an aristocracy dominated a society and controlled a significant share of resources. Samuel Johnson defined a patron as "one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help".〔Quoted in Michael Rosenthal, ''Constable'', London: Thames and Hudson, 1987, p. 203.〕
Rulers, nobles and very wealthy people used patronage of the arts to endorse their political ambitions, social positions, and prestige. That is, patrons operated as sponsors. Most languages other than English still use the term ''mecenate'', derived from the name of Gaius Maecenas, generous friend and adviser to the Roman Emperor Augustus. Some patrons, such as the Medici of Florence, used artistic patronage to "cleanse" wealth that was perceived as ill-gotten through usury. Art patronage was especially important in the creation of religious art. The Roman Catholic Church and later Protestant groups sponsored art and architecture, as seen in churches, cathedrals, painting, sculpture and handicrafts.
While sponsorship of artists and the commissioning of artwork is the best-known aspect of the patronage system, other disciplines also benefited from patronage, including those who studied natural philosophy (pre-modern science), musicians, writers, philosophers, alchemists, astrologers, and other scholars. Artists as diverse and important as Chrétien de Troyes, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson all sought and enjoyed the support of noble or ecclesiastical patrons.〔F. W. Kent et al., eds.,''Patronage, Art, and Society in Renaissance Italy,'' Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987.〕〔Cedric C. Brown, ''Patronage, Politics, and Literary traditions in England, 1558–1658,'' Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1993.〕 Figures as late as Mozart and Beethoven also participated in the system to some degree; it was only with the rise of bourgeois and capitalist social forms in the middle 19th century that European culture moved away from its patronage system to the more publicly supported system of museums, theaters, mass audiences and mass consumption that is familiar in the contemporary world.
This kind of system continues across many fields of the arts. Though the nature of the sponsors has changed—from churches to charitable foundations, and from aristocrats to plutocrats—the term ''patronage'' has a more neutral connotation than in politics. It may simply refer to direct support (often financial) of an artist, for example by grants. In the later part of the 20th century, the academic sub-discipline of patronage studies began to evolve, in recognition of the important and often neglected role that the phenomenon of patronage had played in the cultural life of previous centuries.
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