Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Why the World Needs More Patrons Than You May Realize

My first year out of college, I didn’t make any money. Instead, I spent the year traveling across North America with a band. We even spent a short stint in Taiwan. We were huge in Taipei. Moving from city to city, we would play shows in exchange for tips and often a free meal.

Why the World Needs More Patrons

No matter where we went, we always met a well-intentioned family who swore their casserole was the world’s greatest hot dish. And so it went. For an entire year, we lived off the generosity of other people, staying in their homes and eating their casseroles.

Everything we did that year cost something. The gas for the van. The meals on the road. The occasional night in a hotel when we couldn’t find a host home. It all had to be paid for by someone.

But that year, my six bandmates and I didn’t have to worry about that. Because there were people who were concerned about those things for us. They paid our bills and took care of our expenses so that we could focus on playing music. These were our manager and booking manager, as well as those incredible people who took us into their homes.

There is a word for such a person. It’s an old concept, and although we don’t use the term too often today, the idea endures. The term we might use to describe a generous person who provides for the livelihood of an artist is an unfamiliar one but it shouldn’t be. Because wherever we look, these people are all around us.

What do you call such a person who pays for the livelihood of an artist?

A patron, of course.

The richest artist of the Renaissance

In one of his poems, the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, renowned for his frugality and simple living, complained that his art had left him “poor, old and working as a servant of others.” A recent discovery, however, reveals that Michelangelo might not have been telling the truth.

In the mid-1990s, an art professor at the University of Syracuse in Florence named Rab Hatfield stumbled upon two previously unknown bank accounts held by the famous Italian artist. He discovered a fortune worth what would be nearly $47 million USD, in effect making Michelangelo not only the richest artist of his time, surpassing the wealth of contemporaries such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, but one of the richest artist the world has ever seen.

We are used to telling a story about art and money that has endured for years. We tend to pit creative genius against financial, as if the two cannot coexist. We even have terms like “starving artist” and “sellout” to reinforce this tension.

As a writer, I am prone to such a dichotomy myself, believing that commercially successful work and meaningful creations are mutually exclusive. But what if that weren’t true? What if the image of the starving artist slaving away at his creations without pay was almost always a myth?

What if art and money have maintained a relationship that goes back to the very beginning of time? Would that change the way we approach both art and money?

A third way

There is, I think, a felt need to resolve this tension between doing work that matters — what we might more broadly think of as “art” — and making a living.

It’s easy to polarize these as opposites. When we see a fringe musician achieve phenomenal success and then seemingly alter the style of her music, we say that person has “sold out.” We long for the more innocent days of her purer art, when she wasn’t tempted or tainted by riches.

But is this always the effect when art and money collide? Or are the two more closely related than we would like to believe?

In every era of human history, artists have had to confront the issue of how they will earn a living. Will they resign themselves to a bohemian lifestyle, wallowing in squalor while hoping to create work that endures? Or will he give in to the temptations of commercial enterprises, mass producing work that is popular but ultimately unimportant?

Maybe there is a third way.

I want to argue that every artist, and by that I mean anyone who offers a meaningful contribution to the world, needs a patron. Some will be lucky enough to discover a generous benefactor to pay their bills, while others will find supportive communities to fill such a role. And even others will find ways to become their own patron, as Michelangelo did.

What is an artist?

An artist is anyone who does meaningful creative work and struggles with the tension between doing something important and something that pays the bills. Those of us who want to make a difference with our vocations, at some point, have to grapple with how we pursue personal mastery of a skill and still buy groceries.

What is a patron?

Patrons, though we often don’t recognize them, are all around us. The publisher who pays an author an advance before her book sells a single copy is a patron. But so is the venture capitalist who funds a startup in Silicon Valley before the company turns a profit or the church who pays a pastor’s salary so he can focus on the ministry.

Every time we launch Tribe Writers, people step forward to purchase the course for someone else. Sometimes it’s a spouse supporting their partner’s writing dream. Sometimes it’s a friend who knows a struggling author who needs help getting over a hurdle. And sometimes, it’s a stranger who anonymously offers a scholarship because they believe in the value of creative work pursued in service of others.

Patrons do not just make the arts possible. They make the world you and I inhabit — and so often take for granted — possible. If you aspire to create something of value and share it with the world, you are going to need a patron. And in due time, the world may need you to become one.

Who has served as a patron in your creative life? How have you been a patron for others or yourself? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Was this spurred by the Patreon app?

    • kennedy

      As a boy growing up in the village,i look to my elder sister to get through books and understand the words there. When my sister went to high school, i was on my own but i carried through alright.
      Unfortunately, my sister forgot the books ,even newspaper headline cant revive her now. But I’m keeping the light on, hoping someday she’ll read my book.

    • No, but that’s a great resource for artist.

  • vitabrevisphoto

    I have been fortunate in the past to be gifted with support whether it was equipment, a scholarship, a mentor, or an artists fellowship. I have also paid it forward by offering my services, advice and connections. Right here, right now I need a patron. I have a huge goal I can not possibly achieve on my own.

  • bonni

    I’ve had many patrons along the way. Sometimes a supportive friend will send me a check. Other times, someone will copy edit for free. One time, I organized a crowdfunding campaign. I act as a patron by investing in other crowdfunding projects and by sharing ideas with entrepreneurs and offering friends developmental edits on their manuscripts.

  • I work hard to support authors I love, with preorders and with overpayments for freelance work. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s a “core value.”

  • Mary B Sanders

    I truly felt inspired by this article to not only look for patrons but to also see myself as a patron for others as we make our marks in these creative and artistic endeavors we are compelled to persue. Thanks Jeff

  • Scott Savage

    My friend Ann was my patron. She passed away 5 years ago today. She funded my last class in graduate school, purchased software I needed to do my job better, and bought many of the books which now sit in my library. She encouraged me to write even when I didn’t feel like a writer and she helped complete my funding to get my first MacBook Pro (on which I wrote hundreds of articles and my first two ebooks). Thanks for the reminder Jeff – that we need patrons and we can be them for others!

  • Jeffrey Pierson

    My Patron in life, so far, were my parents. My first calling in life was that of an Actor. My parents were my first supporters. And even though they didn’t really believe that sending me off to a four year University to study Theater may have been the wisest choice of career paths, they paid my tuition, none the less. I can remember the argument I had with my father, the day my friend and fellow University mate came to pick me up for our embarkation, off to College. I had told my parents and actually believed myself that I was going off to study “Communications”. My school had a very notable School of Communications, associated with it. But a few weeks earlier when I had visited the school for orientation, I had decided to go ahead and meet with the people from the Theater department within the School of Fine Arts. They gave me a tour of their theatrical facilities and from that point on this big fish from a small pond of local theatrical productions was hooked. There was just the minutest detail of giving the news to my parents. My father was furious and threatened to not pay for my college education, if that was going to be the case. But somehow and I’m not really sure how, as my spyglass for looking back 40 years to that day has become a little foggy, he agreed to let me go. I have the distinct feeling my mother may have had something to do with it. You see my mother was a very talented artist in her own right and had graduated from college with a degree in Fashion Design. She had a job working in none other than the fashion district in Manhattan, waiting for her. But, you see, my parents were members of what Tom Brokow coined as “The Greatest Generation”. Though they hadn’t dated previously, in fact my father was dating my Mother’s best friend in school, my father had decided my Mom was a pretty special lady and started writing her from the Pacific theater. After the war, my father came home and my mother sacrificed her own previous dreams to marry him and raise a family. I know she never regretted her decision, but I think she recognized in me that spirit that was within her. So even though, I have no proof, I never posed the question to them, I have to believe that there is a kernel of truth in there. But whatever the truth may be, after that original heated discussion, the subject never came up again. And that is probably the greatest love my parents have ever shown me. There has never been any doubt on my part but now, as an adult, when I think of how it went against everything, my father believed in, he’s an engineer by design, I realize how much loved me to put his own beliefs away and support my vision.

  • Eknaath Nagarkar

    I’ve been a writer for ages. Even while working for Bank of India I had written original story & screenplay for movies but as a ghost writer. I had also been writing articles, humor pieces (middles) and letters to the editor. And finally I laid my hands on writing a novel; expended over five years on the subject whereas the writing effort, once started, took me not more than six months; all the time back of my mind was the thought ‘toughest part of the whole exercise is writing of the novel.’ Little did I know at that time that ‘No. Right contacts or getting noticed by the right people that could lead to prominent publishers is the key!’
    My debut novel: A Touch of the Mystic 300 pages has already been published by the Notion Press, Chennai – Needless to mention, it’s a self-publishing effort. I had ordered for 100 copies which I’ve sold to my contacts and uniformly the opinion has been satisfactory. And now looking for an effective agent who could help me.

  • A few years back Donald Miller and the Blue Like Jazz crew were in dire need of funding to keep the movie project going. They started a kickstarter campaign which I helped support. It was encouraging to see how a whole group of patrons, some of whom were only contributing a few dollars, saved a project and enabled it to be completed. I still have a signed poster on my wall that reminds me of the power of patronage — and kickstarter.

    • Yep. I supported it too, Calvin. Thanks for sharing. My friend Zach Prichard helped run that crowdfunding campaign.

  • 1 Corinthians 9:14 says those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. I love the concept of “receiving” a living rather than “making” or “earning” for my writing as well. It means I have an attitude of gratitude and serving.

  • Mark Oelze

    Thanks for your encouraging thoughts Jeff! This is alway something I have struggled with. I love to minister to people and encourage them with my presence or with anything that I produce. At the same time I know I need to provide for my family and others. We have seen God gift us many times through people; more and more we want to be able to make a good income and be that patron for others as we enter into the latter years of our lives! Thanks again!