Illustration by Sarene Chan.

Marrying Culture and Commerce in Arts Patronage

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From a historical point of view, arts patronage has undergone a great change since the birth of the museum as an institution. This has brought about revolutionary changes qualitatively different from the changes that arrived with the introduction of the Royal Academy of Arts and the Salon exhibitions. As art became systematically managed and exhibited by public institutions, works are no longer private property but public and national heritage goods. Therefore, with the development of the art-museum system, traditional arts patronage has gradually been transformed into sponsorship and indirect funding, such as donations, to aid the activities of museums. The activities of the artists who were supported by royal courts and the church in the past became autonomous in the middle of the 19th century. The artist’s economic freedom, acquired through the art market, could be sublimated into artistic values through institutional filtering such as acquisitions and exhibitions.

In the late 19th or early 20th century, major Asian countries imported these Western museum systems, although they still have not achieved cultural maturity alongside rapid economic growth. It will take some time for these countries to develop arts patronage through the public domain of the museum, such as philanthropic and charitable activities outside the field of arts.

Given this context, the question now is whether it’s possible, within the Asian ecosystem, for contemporary art to take advantage of this unbalanced modernization. Interestingly enough, the lack of a proper and stabilized art institution system invites diverse subjects to be involved in art patronage, resulting in multi-angled yet meaningful initiatives that deserve our attention. But therein also lies the negative aspects of the dynamic arts patronage scene in Asia.

Inside the art world, the commercial and the institutional are bound to be interdependent. But one thing to keep in mind is that arts patronage is not an act of commerce but an activity within the public sphere of art.

Those involved in arts patronage in Korea are familiar with the current status of the art environment in Asia. For example, there are many new art institutions established and funded by Korean corporations, which makes the art ecosystem complex. To adopt a reductionist’s point of view, art sponsoring pertains to the realm of the commercial, and patronage to that of the institutional. But what happens when a private, corporate founder of an art institution hosts in their own department store an exhibition organized by their art center? At the moment, this type of art sponsoring is not controversial, but it does raise issues relevant to the ideal practice of art patronage. As a matter of fact, the borders between the public and the private, the nonprofit and the corporate, are blurring. Artists, curators and collectors may go back and forth between two sectors. But for art institutions it should be different: there remains, still, the crucial question about public responsibility of institutional filtering in terms of aesthetic judgment. To organize an exhibition implies an act of evaluation, which is supposed to provide warranty to the value of its exhibits.

In the early days, Korean art patronage subjects were very keen to promote art awards that recognized and supported young and established artists, in helping them organize exhibitions. These organizers of art awards are now diversifying their activities and have recently introduced a variety of support methods for artists. They partner with public institutions to reinforce programs that are necessary but lack resources and they engage with production support, artist residencies and distribution and promotion for artists’ projects in the country or overseas.

Platform–L Contemporary Art Center has a clear and determined position, not to say one that is modest. The founder of Platform–L is a fashion-brand company. They did not set it up for purely aesthetic reasons; they established it because they needed an institution. The parent company was seeking a transition from fashion goods to a wider range of lifestyle designs, and the art center was expected to be a powerhouse that provided creative energy for innovation. But the key question from the outset was how to secure sustainable development for the center. Of primary concern are strategies in which the parent company and the art institutions could both prosper in order to avoid activities being reduced or closed after several years, due to the economic downturn or the management’s change in vision.

One of the characteristics in regard to the current practice of arts patronage in general is an intention to be part of the practice of creativity. Platform-L makes efforts to share all kinds of creative experiences not only with the parent company’s design development team but also with all members of the company. The center aims to become a place for creators in all fields of visual art, architecture, design and performing arts. Therefore, we can inspire the spirit of creativity by sharing meaningful processes with companies, from commissioning and art production, to the process of curating. Furthermore, if this experience is repeated, the results of major art commission projects may serve as a guide in setting the creative direction of the parent company for the next season. If the spirit of creativity in the art world can be extended to the outside world,the reason for the existence of an art centerwill not be easily denied within the enterprise.

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