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I ONCE heard a story about the late Walker Percy that seems to illustrate the plight of so many struggling artists down through the ages. Percy graduated from medical school in the 1940s but soon came down with tuberculosis and had to spend a couple years in a sanatorium. During that time he underwent a profound intellectual and religious conversion and decided to become a writer, first of philosophical essays and later of novels. When, a few years later, he moved to the small town of Covington, Louisiana, he went to the local barber shop. Because news traveled quickly in Covington, the barber had already heard the new resident referred to as “Dr. Percy.” So as Percy settled into the barber’s chair, the barber said to him: “Dr. Percy, what kind of medicine do you practice?” Percy replied that he was no longer a practicing doctor. The barber then asked him what kind of work he was doing. Percy said: “I’m a writer.” After a moment’s pause and with a skeptical expression on his face, the barber said: “But Dr. Percy, what do you really do?” Percy thought for a minute and said: “Nothing.” This response satisfied the barber completely.

I would venture a guess that a hefty percentage of the population at any given moment feels—whether consciously or subconsciously—that writers and artists are people who have discovered a number of creative ways to do nothing at all. This prejudice is closely related to the perennial question about the “usefulness” of art. Ironically, one of the glories of art—that it creates fictions, little lies or “nothings”—may also be one of its greatest liabilities.

Except for the tiny fraction of people who make a living in the arts, most artists are forced to look for day jobs and join in the hunt for one kind of patron or another, whether that be a gallery or a publisher or a collector. It’s a difficult, messy process, made worse by another popular assumption—that suffering is a prerequisite for great art.

Every artist wants a patron, but no one wants to be patronized. Undoubtedly the history of artist/patron relationships is strewn with tempestuous conflicts and betrayals. Nonetheless, enlightened patrons play an enormously important role in the creation of enduring art and literature. A sensitive and courageous patron can do much more than simply provide financial and emotional support for the artist. The great patrons educate public taste, refresh the roots of culture, and often serve as the first biographers and critics on the scene.

In my ten years as fundraiser for Image I’ve learned a great deal about the state of patronage in America, at least as far as the nexus of religion and the arts is concerned. I’ve found that institutions such as churches, universities, and foundations are, more often than not, timid and confused. The institutional church hasn’t been a serious patron of the arts for a couple centuries now, and it hasn’t been doing much to make up for lost time. Powerful, arresting art is simply too controversial to please everyone in the pews, and so the lowest common denominator usually wins out.

While there are a few exemplary foundations today that support the making of original art, most foundations have become bureaucratized. They tend to give money to universities and opera houses with huge budgets and marquee names— another symptom of the American passion for bigness. In the realm of religious philanthropy the news is mixed. While some foundations have begun to recognize the role that art plays in the spiritual life, others have yet to catch on. One of the major foundations in religious philanthropy has just dropped its program for giving to projects that unite religion and the arts. Given the explosion of interest in this area, it’s difficult to understand the timing of that decision.

Arguably, the academy is the largest patron of the arts these days because it employs poets, painters, and other artists as professors. This is a mixed blessing, since many such artists, particularly at small liberal arts colleges, are teaching full course loads and are desperate to get into the studio or to the word processor. There’s also the danger, pointed out by Dana Gioia and others, that the academic setting can become too isolated and incestuous, too far removed from the outside world to remain vital and relevant.

Individuals can be more decisive and visionary than institutions, but many people with substantial means don’t make the connection between their faith and the arts. For some the problem is compartmentalization: they will go to SoHo or Santa Fe to purchase art and then go to church, but never think to link these two activities. For others the obstacle is art itself: they just don’t see the point.

Image was founded, in large part, to foster a deeper awareness of the connection between the life of faith and the life of imagination. So we’ve been heartened by those among our readers who have responded to Image’s annual funding appeal with generosity and words of encouragement.

Image hopes to play a role in successful patronage by promoting the work of artists who deserve wider publicity and support. But we’d like to go a step further. We are currently investigating the possibility of founding an artists’ colony/retreat center that would allow talented artists to spend several weeks of uninterrupted creative time in a beautiful environment where they would share in evenings of conversation, artistic fellowship, and prayer. If you’re interested in helping us in this effort, please get in touch with me. Perhaps we’ll help to make something come from “nothing.”

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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