A word popped up in my consciousness as I was reading a review of the recent exhibit called What is Luxury? at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Patronage.

What would Degas say?

What would Degas say?

It’s a word I hadn’t heard in a long while. Hopelessly old fashioned, it smacks of elitism, class, and (in political circles) cronyism, “favors” and general corruption. And the “p” word was even applied to the “relationship” between dancers and their “patrons”.)

In the realm of art and culture, it conjures up images of that rich cigar-puffer, badgered into (often by a wife) agreeing to fund the work of some obscure, flat-out-broke artist / watchmaker / musician, in return for which they got bragging rights if the artist’s star rose, and first pick of the output whatever happened.

Fast forward to places like New York today, the same thing goes on, where wealthy patrons (now women) support the work of arts institutions.

But such is the whiff of elitism to the word that the most powerful patrons of the day – corporations – now refer to their support as sponsorships, corporate “giving” or even “collaborations”.

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Despite – or perhaps because – of all the heavy freight the “p” word carries with it, “Patronage” has a certain resonance for me. Patrons patronize (ah the terrible connotations there) for not just the pure exchange of value but as a measure of material and emotional / spiritual support. We are being patrons when we buy something from a maker, designer or brand. We are patrons when we go to a store or restaurants on a more or less consistent basis.

As the fat cat patrons of yore did for their artists, and as their pilates’d, barre’d, yoga’d equivalents do for their museums today, we do put our money, sense of identity, and our hopes on the line when we do choose to patronize some one, some place, or some thing. It’s not just a monetary transaction: it means something. It’s less an arms-length relationship, and more about having a stake in the work/product, in success, in the future.

Yet do I bring that perspective to the things I do, the places I go, the things I buy? I think not, even though I like to think I’m a conscious shopper, that I choose where to spend my money wisely, that I know that I vote with my wallet.

So what would it change? Would I be more careful if I started being a patron, rather than just a consumer? Would I waste less time on looking around endlessly for new, stimulating things but focus on patronizing people I believe in? Would I learn more about where I am choosing to spend my money? Would I, at the same time, trust more, take more risks, and relinquish control, trusting that whomever I’m patronizing is good at what they do?

It’s an interesting way to rethink the way we consume. I think I’ll try it.

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