starving artists | patronage in the church


I was back home over the holidays when the conversation came up (as it does) about creating something for someone in my parent’s church.

My mother has a lot of experience with artists of all kinds, having raised a couple. After describing the request in a very balanced way, she finished with: “She didn’t say anything about payment. She might be assuming you’ll do it for free.” (sympathetic pause) “Sorry.”

We talked a bit about it, with me giving some nice valid reasoning about how I am fine doing things for free for my own church, but frustrated about the assumptions people have regarding the arts in church: primarily, that it should be free.

My frustration, which is absolutely connected to the ever-present stress of making ends meet, is not unfamiliar to the other artists I know. For instance, in the world at large, there’s this sense of having to pay your dues as a growing artist, of having to do enough free or underpaid work until people start seeing cash-money value in your art. This is the normal stress of making your way in the world, and I believe that it’s okay and good.

But at some point that expectation (on both ends) should be adjusted. Somehow. Right?

Because besides getting past that point, there’s also the ever-present tension: do I create something authentic that won’t sell or something consumer-centered that will? The church is home to it’s own kitschy cash cows and starving snobs, but somewhere in between is a slew of people simply creating good things for their small-to-medium-sized churches across the country and pursuing creative endeavors on the weekends. The fortunate ones get a part-time job out of it. But most of us just donate our services to the church we attend.

I’m not here to complain about the church, and I don’t blame the church for the current cultural climate toward the arts. I do, however, think that as bodies of believers we need to be doing more to support the arts. In fact, I believe that we all need to intentionally provide patronage to the artists in our congregations.

Hey, I wouldn’t be an artist if I didn’t dream a little.

At some point in history, rich patrons started providing artists with housing, food, and money so that they could pursue their art. Bach is an example of someone who took advantage of this to write extensively for the church. Of course, this still goes on, with patrons of the arts in society making it possible for many artists to pursue full time work.

Why doesn’t the church do something like that more often?

The worship of the church could continue without art, if we’re being honest. Word and Sacrament are primary, and if we didn’t have music we would still be nourished by Christ at those tables. However, creative art, like the wonderful gift it is, is given to us as a way of enhancing our times of gathered worship and our everyday lives. Is this not a worthy investment?

Of all communities in this broken world, the church should lead the way in promoting beauty, truth, and empathy in communication. Of all communities, we can champion artists who are trying to be authentic in their work. The expectation of free labor from these artists could, just maybe, be damaging the idea that this sort of gracious, honest communication is valuable and necessary to the life of the church.  It definitely is not producing quality art (if you’re skeptical, take a look at what pays the bills for artists in Christian film-making…)

Speaking of the church, maybe a glimpse at it’s early life would be revealing:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.   Acts 4:32-35

At this point this becomes an argument for a more robust type of church community. Because while artists may be one of the more visible contributors to the church, no one in the church should be in need, if we’re aiming for that ideal set for us in Acts.

So perhaps patronage (top-down) isn’t the answer.  Maybe community (side-to-side) is.

With communal finances, there’s good possibility of repaying artists in the church fairly through the financial gifts given to the church. And if there isn’t enough money in the coffers to support the artists in the church, churches can be honest about that instead of blowing steam about “sacrifices of praise.” Flipping the tables, if there isn’t enough money, artists can be humble enough to make sacrifices for their congregation. But mostly, if there isn’t enough, the community of the church can take up the slack.

It doesn’t have to be monetary and it’s not a solo endeavor.

Within the concept of communal patronage of the arts in churches lies some seriously awesome possibilities.  Allow me some what-ifs:

  1. What if a church sent several aspiring song-writers on a yearly collaborative retreat, fully-covered by the church, with the goal of writing new hymnody for the church?
  2. What if a church commissioned several painters in its ranks to create a series of works for church holy days, and rented them out to other churches and organizations?
  3. What if a church developed a series of worship arts workshops that allow kids to explore what it means to worship through other mediums besides music?
  4. What if a church bought a sizable shipment of an aspiring author’s new book to give as gifts to the congregation?

These are large-scale ideas, and I know of churches who have made these things happen. On the smaller scale though, there are everyday options for all of us:

  1. Buy albums instead of streaming them. Give actual money to those who give their music away at any price.
  2. Go to concerts, open mic nights, poetry slams, and art shows in your community, especially if someone in your church is involved. Bring friends.
  3. Share posts and events on social media. Create buzz for things. Act as an amplifier for their voices. Get beyond the like button and engage more deeply.
  4. Make the way clear for them to create – babysit, put some seed money toward equipment, cover their shift.

The truth of the matter is that communal patronage in the church is a commitment that lasts longer and requires more sacrifice than single large expenditures of money. Some of the questions we have to ask are:

  1. How do we form in young artists a theological framework for what they create for worship?
  2. How do we encourage artists that may not be fantastic to pursue their work diligently?
  3. How do we find places in the church for art that is heartfelt but not excellent?
  4. How do we form in church members the concept of sharing everything with the body, and encouraging each other day in and day out, as if they were family?

Essentially, the health of the church doesn’t just depend on the bigwigs up top developing us as congregants. It means us supporting those around us – in big and small ways, in truth and in love, and in a very daily fashion. We need to find those barriers to true community and break them down for the sake of a thriving body. I think the art of the church will be better for it.

Just think: what would we be able to create in that kind of community?


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