Silicon Valley moguls aren't going to save the arts: The ugly truths of patronage go back centuries

Tech industry types think they're the best thing ever to happen to music and the arts. Don't believe them

Published June 4, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller in "Silicon Valley"              (HBO)
Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller in "Silicon Valley" (HBO)

Talk to techno-utopians and well-meaning libertarians about the crisis in culture today – the increasing demand for musicians, artists, and scribes to work for free or almost nothing – and you’ll hear a cheery solution. Patronage! If everything else that used to help creatives get paid has fallen through, what about the tribe of noble rich people – especially those groovy, socially progressive folks in Silicon Valley who just love music and culture -- dialing it up directly?

Here’s Nick Korniloff, founder of the international festival Art Silicon Valley, which started last year, in Pacific Standard:

“The global industry of technology has so many synergies with art and it’s such a creative community that it only made sense to bring a high quality fair to Silicon Valley. We believe they will be the next great caretakers of the art market. You could talk about just the wealth and you need a certain level of affluence to collect art, but we think it’s beyond that.”

Google, Yahoo, Facebook and PayPay all have artist-in-residence programs, he points out; tech moguls will become the equivalent of the captains of industry that helped art thrive in New York City.

The part of this argument that’s accurate here is that most of the infrastructure that supported the creative class – print advertising for journalists and photographers, record sales for musicians, independent bookstores that often employed entry-level literary folk – have indeed collapsed over the last decade or two. The cult of “free” – the idea that ideas and “content” should be available to anyone with a laptop – has gutted just about every other way people in these fields earned their living. Much of that implosion, by the way, was provoked by these same culture-loving Silicon Valley geniuses.

But leaving that aside, can’t they be good for culture nonetheless? “Indeed, patronage models and philanthropy tend to thrive in times of massive class disparities,” Pacific Standard says of Silicon Valley's solution — a sort of return to the Medici model, updated for the 21st century.

So far, this seems to be working well enough for the few artists in residence at large tech campuses and the international galleries that are represented at Art Silicon Valley.

But local Silicon Valley philanthropy is more laptops and STEM education than paints and color theory. The local artists who bear the higher living costs of Bay Area living are not reaping the rewards of that growing local wealth, and neither are the less wealthy who love art too. In fact, galleries and museums are being displaced by pricier rents. And when they do find success with small-scale patronage on online platforms, artists give up big fees to platform managers—very few of whom are creative workers themselves.

What have these tech type done to the cost of living up there? In San Francisco, the median one-bedroom apartment will run you about $3,460 – that was in February, so it’s gone up since then – and Zillow shows the median rent in town at $4,225 a month. Year over year, the city’s rent is up by 16 percent – in Berkeley, 31 percent. Musicians and club owners have started to leave the Bay Area because of what these art lovers have done to the ability of actual artists to make a living nearby.

Let’s return to patronage for a moment. If you go back historically, you see that arts patronage was hardly a great deal for the artist the first time around.

The composer Joseph Haydn invented the symphony and the string quartet. The bulk of his career was spent with the House of Esterhazy, where he wore livery and dined with the servants. Monteverdi wrote the most important early opera, “L’Orfeo”; when he left royal service in Lombardy after two decades of labor, he had about enough money to buy himself lunch. Velasquez was responsible for painting the portrait of Spain’s King Philip IV as well as overseeing the royal janitors.

Musicians and artists who left their posts could be thrown into prison.

Now, we could see the moguls in Silicon Valley loving to have an artist or jester on a string. Some of their culture love may be sincere. “Musicians, comedians, writers,” a character in Dave Eggers’s Silicon Valley novel “The Circle” says of one of the founder’s passion project, "to bring them here to get exposure, especially given how rough it is out there for them.” This artsy founder brings artists in to the Google-like campus: He just doesn’t pay them.

With the failure of everything else, patronage sounds good. But if history is any guide, this is likely to a be lot more fun for the free-loving consumer than the creative class.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Creative Class Dave Eggers Music Silicon Valley