John Rockwell and Linda Breneman: A Dialogue

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 19, No 1 (Spring 2008), 2007 Conference Proceedings

Ed Harsh
A conversation between essayist John Rockwell and Linda Breneman (Breneman Jaech Foundation) about cultural patronage today, from the perspectives of a journalist and an individual donor. Funders with varying relationships to living patrons, donors' estates, and philanthropic institutions chime in on how risky, enduring art is—or might be—supported.

John Rockwell; Linda Breneman, Breneman Jaech Foundation; Frances Phillips, Walter and Elise Haas Fund (moderator); Ed Jones, JPMorgan Chase; James Allen Smith, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation; Diane Frankel, Artists' Legacy Foundation; Peter Handler, The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation (interlocutors).

As arts grantmakers, we are all familiar with the relationship between the money that supports arts production and the art that results. Some artists find ways to continue vital, creative work with no apparent financial support—think John Cage and his New York School compatriots in the early 1950s—but the fact remains: Where the money goes, there is activity. And the qualities of that activity reflect the decisions embodied in the money's distribution. This is a key reason we feel so responsible for making our decisions good ones.

Much of this session touched upon the mutually reactive relationship between arts philanthropy and art-making. Principal speakers John Rockwell and Linda Breneman brought insightful perspectives to the discussion of this relationship, which are worthy of a continuing conversation among GIA members.

Rockwell sketched two nearly opposing points along the continuum of arts funding. At one end, entrenched patron families of an opera house enforce a staid conservatism in the company's programming through their giving. At the other, a “swashbuckling” patron acts impulsively on a passion-charged instinct about an emerging artist's work.

Breneman agreed that the personal passion of an individual donor (she's not a fan of the word “patron”) allowed speedy responses to the needs of the moment, quick-turning jet skis compared with the more stately course corrections of much larger philanthropic ocean liners. At the same time, she expressed her interest in exploring, through GIA, how various institutions decide to give money in ways that are efficient and productive.

In this context, the venerable model of the peer panel came up for discussion in the session. The number of times panel processes came up in the Taos sessions was intriguing, as were the array of methods—sometimes strikingly divergent—that were described and defended with feeling and intelligence. This is a subject worth periodic GIA attention; it provides us with the opportunity of refreshing our thinking about a mechanism that is integral to the way we make many funding decisions.

One comment about peer panels was that authoritative voices—in advisory roles or as final decisionmakers such as foundation trustees—can help us evaluate “edgier” work requiring support. The voice of experienced professionals in the field can sometimes be more persuasive with trustees than staff opinion.

Rockwell picked up on this thread from the perspective of professional critics. They find themselves in the simultaneously enviable and unenviable position of being seen as key tastemakers by organizational boards. A review in the press may be a powerful lever for future activity. In its crudest form, a good review means good art that should be supported; a bad review means bad art that should be abandoned.

To the objection that it's not funders or critics who set the tone but creative artists themselves, Rockwell responded that historically the supporting structures—from the hierarchy of the medieval Catholic church, to monarchs and aristocrats, to the cultural commissars of the Soviet Union, to the more heterogeneous funding sources of late capitalism—have always had a certain controlling role.

Breneman returned to the idea that individual donors can more easily follow the trails that artists blaze, even if it entails real risks. Risk was another topic that drew comments from around the room, including the idea of the capital model in which 80 to 90 percent of invested activity fails, but corresponding successes more than redeem the failures.

The session closed with Rockwell offering his prescription for a healthier national environment for the arts: “Get more people involved in the arts, however it's done, through art education, personal mentoring, or whatever. We need to make it a more cultured society so there's more recognition of the arts on their own terms.” Everyone agreed.