Crowd-Patronage Project Summary


I've just finished the key part of my research project examining crowd-patronage. It was funded from January 2015 - Dec 2016 by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust small grant scheme. I wrote some blogs along the way which you can read here:

Analysis is ongoing, and below is a summary of the key findings to date. The first academic article from the project has recently been published and you can access it free until 4th Dec 2017 here (if you want a copy after that date let me know).

The full proposal of the project is here, and the main aims have been to analyse:

  • new geographies and networks of patronage
  • the impact of new intermediaries on the power relations within patronage networks
  • the impact of crowd-patronage on existing arts funding schemes

A key focus of the project is the work done by web platforms Subbable and Patreon, although this shifted after the latter acquired the former. For those unfamiliar with what Patreon do, this video is a good introduction.

1. Executive Summary

Patronage of artists has long been a key form of support for cultural production. From the poets serving Welsh courts in the 12th century to contemporary transnational gallery networks, artists have worked with patrons to produce art that has served cultural as well as political and economic functions. The key finding of this project is that what I am calling ‘crowd-patronage’ is a new form of patronage of the arts. Mediated through the web by platforms such as Subbable and Patreon (now merged), crowd-patronage is qualitatively and quantitatively different to other types of patronage and crowd-funding, and allows patrons to support artists around the world through monthly payments. Crowd-patronage alters relationships between artist and patron, shifting the control over what and how work is produced from patrons to artists, and allows more people to engage in funding the arts. The role of cultural and economic intermediaries (such as agents, advertisers, curators, publishers etc) within patronage networks also shifts, altering what is celebrated, promoted and even allowed online. Algorithms are also introduced to these networks to perform curatorial and regulatory functions, reducing human influence. Finally, regular financial support, and de-centring of rewards in patron-artist relationships, marks out crowd-patronage as different to the kind of crowdfunding facilitated through sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo.


These characteristics are explored more deeply below. But first, the next section outlines a brief history of patronage to contextualise crowd-patronage amongst other forms of patronage.

2. A brief history of patronage

This section is based on a longer outline i've written for a journal article. If you'd like the longer version contact me here

Early patronage

Williams (1981) identifies the emergence of court poets, or ‘poets of the princes’ in Wales in the 12th Century as the first distinct form of patronage. Poets were attached to households, travelling between them and performing their work in return for “hospitality and support”  and payment for major pieces. This group of poets was headed by the ‘Chief of Song’ (or Pencerdd) who sang at ceremonial occasions, assigned poets to noble lords, oversaw the examination of apprentices and in some cases helped run a prince’s court.

David di Michelangelo, Firenze by  Vincent Garcia  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

David di Michelangelo, Firenze by Vincent Garcia (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Retainer and commission patronage

Perhaps the best known form of patronage relations Williams (1981) terms ‘retainer and commission’ patronage. This form of patronage involved a variety of different arrangements, but most commonly painters, sculptors, architects, writers and musicians were retained by religious orders, city authorities, families and courts to produce art. The zenith of retainer and commission patronage can be found in Renaissance Italy. It should be noted, however, that artist communities and patronage networks also existed during this period in London, Ghent, Paris, and Prague, amongst others.

Sponsorship and subscription lists

Under this subscription forms of patronage patrons essentially sponsored, rather than commissioned, artistic production. By the 18th century the market for art had developed to the point where production for sale was commonplace, but patronage was required to “to provide early support, or early encouragement, to artists beginning to make their way in the market, or unable to sustain some particular project within it” (Williams, 1981: 42). Subscribers were made up of traditional patronage classes – aristocracy, and depending on the publication, clergy – but also included members of the growing middle classes such as professionals, merchants and manufacturers.

Government Patronage

Government patronage has a long history. At the city scale, Italian city authorities during the Renaissance supported the arts, and after the French Revolution Napoleon strengthened national organisations for the arts, but it was after WW2 that governments began to more fully engage in patronage, using a range of distribution mechanisms, selection criteria and policy interventions. Government patronage - summarised in this table - comes in a variety different forms, and varies across time and space.



Form of Support





Tax relief for corporations, foundations and individuals

Diversity of support for arts

No standards

Valuing donations is problematic

Benefits may occur beyond national borders

Difficult to calculate cost of foregone tax

USA tax exemption for philanthropic giving


Arm’s length arts organisations funded by government


Eligibility criteria can be used

Controversial art becomes political problem

Accusations of fostering elitism

Arts Councils in UK

National Endowment for the Arts (USA)


Grants from government department

Non-market mechanism

Possibility of creative stagnation

Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science


State controls all means of cultural production

Complete control of artistic production

Complete control of artistic production


Modes of Government Support for the Arts (based on Hillman-Chartrand and McCaughey, 1989)

Corporate Patronage

State supported arts funding remains an important, if sometimes controversial, source of patronage for artists, but it has been eroded by and to some extend replaced by corporate patronage. Corporate patronage can be most clearly seen in the US and UK, and has its origins in the neo-liberalism animated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Corporate patronage during this time, and since, involves a range of engagements with artists and the art world including corporations sponsoring exhibitions and concerts, funding galleries, commissioning artists to produce work for their offices or as part of product lines, buying and exhibiting art, and higher management take positions on boards of cultural institutions.

3. What I did during my project

I used a range of methods to understand how the activities of Subbable and Patreon, and the artists and patrons using them, fit within the above typology.

The first phase of the research involved analysis of patron-artist data scrapped from the Patreon website, using social network analysis. This was really interesting and revealed communities of patrons and artists centred on genre, language and medium. I need to do some more analysis on this data and write it up properly, but some general findings can be found on this blog post. The software i use for the social network analysis, gephi, generates great visualisations of the data you put into it. As a result i was a able to produce a couple of pieces of art.

Artist-Patron Communites on

Artist-Patron Communites on

The second method adopted was a questionnaire, but it didn’t glean as many responses as I had hoped. A sample 250 patrons and 250 artists was outlined in the proposal, but recruitment was more difficult than expected. In the end over 100 artists responded, who provided very useful information, but only 14 patrons did. While this was disappointing the scale of the social network analysis data compensated to some extent. The information gleaned from the artist survey was incredibly useful to support insights gained from other methods.

The third stage of the research involved interviews with artists and patrons, plus stakeholders in patronage and arts funding more generally. It was fascinating to hear about people's artist practice and I'm always honoured when people give up their time to discuss their work with me - if you took part, thank you! Big thanks also goes to Patreon who invited me over to their HQ to meet the team, and i spent the day there while i was at a conference in San Francisco. I did some interviews with the team and they even gave me lunch! It's the coolest office i've ever seen.

I also did loads of analysis of secondary documents: blogs, videos, reports, artist's websites, tweets, etc. i even read the terms of use for various websites to understand how the regulation of art online is influenced by the policies of different companies.

4. Key Findings

Again, this is a truncated version and i've removed most of the academic references to make it easier to read. If you want more detail get in touch.

4.1 Scale of Patreon Patronage Networks

One of the major differences between crowd-patronage and the forms outlined above are the number of patrons artists gain and their geographic spread. Patreon’s patronage network is large and global. At the time of writing there were 50 412 artists receiving 1.4m pledges each month and in 2016 Patreon facilitated $100m of payments between patrons and artists. The top 10 creators receive 3% of this total, and the top five artists were earning more than $30 000 a month (see Graphtreon for upto date stats). This represents significant amounts of revenue for artists, and by the end of 2017 the total transferred from patrons to artists on a yearly basis could rival the [pre-Trump] $147m budget of the US National Endowment for the Arts.

Using the data from my social network analysis, Patreon users were identified in 96 locations. The sample includes locations from every continent including Antarctica (0 artists, 2 patrons), Saipan (0 artists, 1 patron) and Iraq (1 artist, 0 patrons), but the geographical distribution is uneven. The USA has the highest number of both artists (2643 or 45.55%) and patrons (2430 or 15.16%) in the sample.

4.2 Mobility of Artists

Within traditional forms of patronage, artists have tended to follow the money. During the Renaissance this meant moving to a major Italian city, and more recently to where the clients, agents and galleries are located. The globalisation of patrons highlighted in the previous section does not require Patreon artists to also globalise their practice. Indeed, the process of following the patrons seen in previous eras is no longer necessary: Patreon handles that. Moreover, with dozens, hundreds and even thousands of patrons around the world, doing so is impossible. The web-mediated nature of relationships and the digital form of much of the art, means artists are found well beyond the key hubs of the art world. That doesn’t mean their work is insignificant, however, as artists using Patreon have been:

"...nominated for Grammy’s (congrats again, Jacob Collier and Pentatonix), appear on national television (Issa Rae), are best-selling authors (N.K. JemisinJohn Green, and Amanda Palmer), are award-winning journalists (CANADALANDand The Rubin Report), founders of media companies (Sarah Lacy and Kinda Funny), have become household names (hello, Neil deGrasse Tyson), and even interviewed President Obama (way to go, SmarterEveryDay!)." (Conte, 2017)

Artists using Patreon frequently work from home, using digital platforms to distribute and exhibit their work. For many a computer and internet connection are all that is required to upload work and engage with Patreon for many users. Performance-based artists such as musicians, theatre companies and comedians are more mobile, exhibiting their work on tours, but respondents reported this is usually to an audience who are not (or at least not yet) Patreon-based patrons.

4.3 Patron-Artist Relationships

The low levels of artist mobility, then, raises questions about the nature of relationships between artist and patron. Throughout history these relationships have taken many forms, but generally involve patrons exerting some form of control over the art being produced. Within crowd-patronage networks, relationships are also varied, but control is not a primary concern of patrons. In contrast to other forms of crowdfunding, artists' pitch to patrons is not that they want to do a new activity or produce a new product, but they want to continue what they are doing, do more of it and do it better.

This attitude is reflected in the demands patrons make of artists. As one respondent to the questionnaire put it: "The art is theirs. Not mine. If they ask for ideas and I happen to have one, I would share, but I'm supporting their creativity.” 

4.4 Role of Intermediaries

One of Patreon’s founding principles was to create a more direct relationship between artists and fans by removing these actors. But the role played by intermediaries in the creation, distribution and consumption of art is so embedded into production networks rather than processes of disintermediation, we instead see reintermediation: “displacing and replacing existing intermediaries within value chains” (French and Leyshon, 2004: 280). Patreon, for instance, are themselves an intermediary, managing the pledge system and taking a 5% cut of transfers between patrons and artists (Patreon CEO, Jack Conte, has discussed this contradiction on the Surviving Creativity podcast). They don’t process the payments themselves, instead another intermediary – Stripe, a payment processor - handle the monthly transfer of money between patrons and artists, provide security in the process and also charge a processing fee.

As in other modes of patronage, intermediaries play curatorial roles, and two such processes emerge here. First, distribution platforms provide traditional curatorial functions by promoting content a user may like. Patreon’s ‘featured’ section on their homepage is based on decisions made by a dedicated team of staff, while algorithms develop recommendations in a user’s ‘suggested’ section. Youtube’s ‘trending’ list uses viewing metrics to highlight popular videos in different territories as they emerge, while their ‘recommended’ section combines a user’s viewing history, subscriptions and general viewing metrics to make suggestions. This kind of algorithmic curation is not as neutral as it may appear, however. The code is written by humans based on various assumptions about what people will like, trends in algorithmic models come and go, and emphasis is put on different metrics often decided by commercial interests such as advertisers. Thus although the nature of curatorial intermediaries has changed compared to other modes of patronage, algorithms are written to seek similar political and economic goals for their authors.

Second, the terms of use and community guidelines of distribution intermediaries regulate the kind of content which can and cannot be hosted on sites such as Youtube, Deviantart and Instagram.