The idea of the bohemian artist, poor yet determined in pursuit of creative expression, is a trope that has existed throughout the history of human civilization. Often excluded from mainstream cultural discourse is the importance of arts patronage, which has been crucial to the development of the arts for centuries and is core to our understanding of culture. Most noteworthy, perhaps, are the Medici or Sforza families of the Renaissance era, who provided protection, sponsorship and commissions to artists. Indeed, many of history’s most celebrated masterpieces, or even art movements, would not have come to fruition without the support of such benefactors. This bilateral patron-client relationship has evolved since then, and continues to evolve in the contemporary art landscape. A pantheon of modern-day Medicis, such as the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers, the Rubells, Qiao Zhibing and Wang Wei, continue to shape the course of art history, with private collections now largely accessible in public institutions, advancing an educational vision and mission in alignment with the “Miami model.”
Today’s cultural patronage is a complex landscape, as art infrastructures continue to grow and adapt against the backdrop of rapid technological development and globalization. Artists, collectors, curators and professionals are transitioning more and
more between the commercial and the institutional, the corporate and the nonprofit. Contemporary arts patronage, specifically from Asia, weaves into this network with renewed significance. Today, the patron-artist relationship is no longer a simplistic barter based on monetary support, but expands widely to include subjects such as conceptual development, project involvement, private and public collections, plus the provision of international platforms for artistic exposure, among many other factors. This webbed dialogue is both challenging and meaningful, presenting far-reaching ambitions and new possibilities for a new generation of artistic communities striving for a global voice.
Critical to the discourse is the patron’s agenda, which should be, on all fronts, centered on the integrity of the artist.
The rising new cultural elite should serve not their own interests but those of the artist. Patrons have the unique ability to propel and project an artist’s trajectory by means of their networks and resources, and this should not be undertaken with the immediate goal of populist or blockbuster exhibitions but by a genuine long-term partnership with the artist—devoting time, thought, research and other intangible values that contribute to the comprehensive success of an individual.
The K11 Art Foundation has over the past few years supported a range of China’s emerging contemporary artists, with a long-term vision for developing their careers. Cheng Ran, one of China’s most promising young artists, was first presented in a group show in 2015; after which one of his works, the epic 9-hour video In Course of the Miraculous was produced and debuted at the 14th Istanbul Biennial in 2015, which then led to a three-month residency and exhibition at New York’s New Museum. Similarly, Zhang Ding’s Enter the Dragon installation in 2015 was a momentous partnership with the ICA London; while K11’s series of “As Far As Near” projects have seen notable collaborations with international institutions such as Centre Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo and Serpentine Galleries, bringing Chinese artists to the international stage. In an effort to promote arts education for the public, we partnered with New York’s Museum of Modern Art in launching their first online public course in photography, in China. The nuanced development of each artist and curator, carefully considered in each context and juncture, was instrumental to their growth, seeing not only maturity in creative output, but daring experimentation with new media, new subjects and new ideas.
Within this framework, however, it must be emphasized that patrons should promote artistic freedom and resist the urge to dictate or condition the works to be created. Here, the role of the curator is of primary importance, and is one that our foundation strongly supports. Curators are beholders of intellectual cultural criticism, and thus have the ability to stimulate dialogue, initiate debate and foster cross-cultural discourse. They are the neutral voices that concretize a collaboration and materialize an exhibition; their support and guidance to artists are paramount. Their stance is one of independence and theory, and though the role of the curator is arguably a more modern concept, it is an urgently necessary one within an art world that is becoming increasingly dominated by capitalism.
The patron-artist-curator triangle can generate independent ideas that incubate, groom and nurture the millennial artists of our generation, who are looking not solely for financial support but for the breadth and strength of a foundation from which to springboard their creative aspirations. Ultimately, there is neither a right nor a wrong route toward cultural patronage, nor is there a definitive definition of the role it plays within our artistic ecosystem. What is true, however, is the underlying motivation that unites all artistic enthusiasts—a genuine passion for art. From that, we can build a contemporary model that is forward-looking, inspiring and challenging, engendering a progressive stance in the world.
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