Illustration by Eric Chow.

Another Side of Patronage

Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

A few nights after ArtAsiaPacific suggested that I contribute to its series on arts patronage, I found myself in Tokyo attending a memorial concert for the late Hideo Ikeezumi—a curator, organizer and shop proprietor with whom I had been developing several projects before he passed away. Ikeezumi was the owner of a tiny CD store called Modern Music and the founder of PSF, a record label whose releases changed many lives, including my own. Ikeezumi’s legacy is far from the mainstream and will probably always remain so, but he dedicated his life to supporting Japan’s culture of avantgarde music, performance and sound art at a time when few others were willing to do so, and institutional support was nonexistent. Although Ikeezumi produced or reissued recordings by figures including Keiji Haino, Masayuki Takayanagi and Takehisa Kosugi (Fluxus member and subject of a recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York), the significance of his work was not recognized during his lifetime, even as the reputation of the artists he supported grew.

Previous columns in this series have described, better than I can, how the model of patronage and the infrastructure of support in the contemporary art world has developed into the complex system that exists today. This system offers a seemingly endless array of options to the young artist or curator who is unable to make a living exclusively from the marketplace, enabling practices that are marginalized by the consumer art market to survive. However, despite the immense volume of residencies, grants, foundations and private museums working to present artists with forms of indirect patronage, the end result is not liberation from the so-called oppressive demands of the market but the creation of a more or less academic kind of art, which is merely the structural inverse of commercial production. Both models function according to rigid logics of valuation and both arguably derive their capital from the same sources. As someone who runs a young gallery in Hong Kong, I can say there is certainly a lot of pressure to conform and to play by the rules of this closed system. For artists, I believe the pressure is even greater.

As culture becomes more and more institutionalized, especially here in Asia, we should remember that art is something entirely different than the massive infrastructure that has been built around it; art springs from a different source. With increasing commercial interest and aggressive cultural development, I think there is a danger that we will forget that art itself is not of the system. It is so easy these days to confuse the business of art with the making of it. After all, our current consumer society is predicated on forgetting where things come from. The question is, with so much money, so many newly built spaces and so much demand, are we supporting art or are we mining it to the point of exhaustion? Are we ignoring what art actually needs?

If patronage is thought of as merely a trade of one form of capital for another, then we are sorely missing the point. All we will have left are trends endemic to both the institutional art world and the market. Art is tied to the untimely and often unruly experience of the artist, and as such, must endure a wait before it can be organized and converted into capital. Art must have the space and time to exist freely before it is freeze-dried; supporting this process is as important as building the infrastructure to present and validate the work. The point is that we have to start transforming capital into something else. Art is alchemical. It is not an investment or a thing that just hangs on the wall or sits in storage. If a work moves you, if it opens your senses and gives you another point of view or a window into the unknown, that is its value.

The history of arts patronage is as much a story of power and cultural influence as it is a story of risk and resistance. Ikeezumi stocked music in his store that he knew would never sell but that he saw value in nonetheless. He did it for the satisfaction of touching art, for the pleasure of being close to the music he loved and nourishing it. What else could he have done it for? It is easy to give when it makes you look good; it is another thing to give when it risks rather than rewards your socioeconomic status. Anyone who has given art a floor to sleep on, when it was the difficult and inconvenient thing to do, has resisted a system that is based instead on manufacturing winners. It may be old-fashioned to say so but I’ve always believed that patronage is a private affair. You have to get involved and spill blood to take care of art. That’s what makes the difference. To all the new patrons of the future, support what only you can, what only you will, what only you see, and don’t be afraid to let the beauty and the chaos in. Art should by nature make a mess.

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 85 a year or USD 160 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the September/October 2017 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 15.