From Patronage to Open Market: System Changes, Art Shifts

Written by: Haomin Li

In this week’s Art Market Column, I would like to adopt a social art historical viewpoint to briefly discuss the modern history of the art market. I would argue that the shift in the socio-economical system has significantly impacted the diachronic development of art and its manifestation.

The history of the art market can be characterised by the constant tension of two systems: the ‘patronage’ system and the ‘open market’ system. This — ‘patronage’ v.s. ‘open market’ — seems like a strict dichotomy. However, it is crucial to understand that these two systems are not diametrically antithetical, and they do coexist more often than not. This will be elaborated later. Now, from this ‘dichotomisation’ I shall kickstart the article, and through this ‘dichotomy’ I shall bring this article to an end with some discussions surrounding the still visible tension between ‘patronage’ and ‘open market’ in modern and contemporary art market (of the twentieth century and indeed of today).

The ‘patronage’ system dominates the art market in the early modern era, and this system is particularly relevant from around the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century. During this period, powerful and wealthy individuals (usually aristocratic), states, and institutions were the major commissioners and patrons of artistic projects, with the Catholic Church being probably the most important patron of the arts especially during the Catholic Reformation. These patrons saw it as their own personal or institutional duty and their prerogative to support the arts. The patronage system seems to be closely associated with a strong central government, the vast majority of them not-so-coincidentally absolutist. The patronage system thrives best under absolutist theocracy (i.e. the Papal States), absolutist monarchies (e.g. the Ming Dynasty, the Bourbon Dynasty, etc.), and lesser yet still enormously powerful duchies and dependent territories with ‘artsy’ sensibility (e.g. the Sforza in Milan, the Medici in Tuscany, the Spanish Netherlands, etc.).

Michelangelo, The Sistine Chapel Interior Walls and Ceiling Painted Frescoes, 1508-12

Under the patronage system, artistic activities were characterised by the production of immovable, site-specific, and large-scale monumental artworks. Think of all the grandiose ecclesiastical and monarchical architecture like the Temple of Heaven in Peking, the new St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and the Palace of Versailles in its namesake town; think of the grand painting cycles like the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes in the heart of Vatican City and the Marie de’ Medici cycle originally placed in the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. There are countless other examples in many other parts of the world. When I used the adjective, ‘monumental’, to describe works of art under the patronage system, I was aiming at the word’s meaning on a more literal level. Works of art under the patronage system are generally produced so as to display the social standings of the patrons and to monumentalise and commemorate the patron, their family, and/or the religious or political institution to which they are affiliated. The artistic language in these works almost always tends to serve the purpose of glorification of the patron, and great emphasis is placed on the artworks’ material durability in order to achieve the intended immortalisation of the patron. Of course, the monumentality of these artworks has secured themselves a throne of honour in the current Art Historical canon, but the monumentality of these site-specific works (e.g. altarpieces, decorative cycles, etc.) also leads to their immovability and ultimately results in the insolubility of these artworks participating in transactions in an open and free market framework.

With the rise of the mercantile burgher class particularly in places like Antwerp, Amsterdam, and London in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ‘patronage’ system encountered its first challenge from the ‘open market’ system. The open market features the emergence of a critical mass of professional art dealers and collectors. In an ‘open market’ system, art is treated more as commodities in the private realm than monuments in the public arena. Disparate from the immovable works produced under the framework of aristocratic / state / ecclesiastical patronage, artworks produced in the system of open market are smaller, less site-specific, and, consequentially, more ‘sellable’ and easier to handle in a typical market framework and sales mechanism. Painters operating in an ‘open market’ framework do not have to rely on commissions anymore; instead, they can produce speculative artworks to sustain and boost their livelihood. This was especially true towards the end of (and after) the reign of Louis XIV when the central absolutist monarchical government did not have sufficient monetary power anymore to sponsor art on the same level that they used to. As T. J. Clark incisively concludes, the artists producing art for the market are in collaboration and negotiation with the potential art consumers, or the imagined image thereof in the artists’ mind. What is rather sad is that painters producing for an open market concerns themselves less and less with producing materially durable artworks, as their primary aim is to simply satisfy the whimsically variable market demand, not to glorify or immortalise any consumer. For those who still firmly believe that art is ‘pure’ and ‘otherworldly’ and for those who are dissatisfied with the ‘corrupted’ art market, I am sorry, but I have to break the news to you (again) that art has been deeply entrenched in socio-economical production for centuries.

Albert Cuyp, Young Herdsmen with Cows, c.1655-60

What I want to point out and caution the readers about is that, although I seem to be hinting at a strict dichotomy here, truth is, the two kinds of system have always been coexistent. Even during the height of the ‘patronage’ system, there were still artworks circulating around on the market. As early as the 1500s, there were vibrant trading in paintings in Antwerp that centred in a permanent year-round market known as the ‘pand’, anticipating the modern art fair. When the ‘open market’ system ‘prevailed’ over the ‘patronage’ system later, there were obviously still public commissions. Studying the art market is just like studying any other sector within the history of art, it is important to keep in mind that there are always more less-emphasised and unseen alternatives to the emphasised. A reasonable analogy can be made here to facilitate the understanding of my point. The ‘patronage’ system is ‘command economy’ and the ‘open market’ system is ‘market economy’. There is no pure command economy or market economy with extremely few exceptions; usually, every government adopts the hybridisation of command and market economies, and so does the art market.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1950

Towards the end of this article, I’d like to draw our attention to the tensed coexistence between the ‘patronage’ system and the ‘open market’ system in modern and contemporary times. Although what we immediately think of regarding the twentieth century art scene is a free and commercially vibrant one, we also saw the comeback of the ‘patronage’ system correlated with worldwide governments’ adoption of government-controlled or (at least) government-moderated economies. For instance, Soviet Union, as we know, actively sponsored art to their liking: the propagandist Socialist Realist art. Other Communist governments that adopt similar strategies include North Korea as well as People’s Republic of China. Capitalist states also sponsored art. Republic of China sponsored numerous public memorials throughout Taiwan in memory of Chiang Kai-Shek and Sun Yat-Sen. The United States also sponsored art via Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project. Artists were financially relieved after the Great Depression, and the States also got what it wanted — propaganda. Even the Modernist style that practically equals ‘individualistic freedom’ — Abstract Expressionism — was backed by the CIA to spread the U.S. government’s values so as to counter ‘Communist influences’ in Europe and in other parts of the world… The only difference between the United States and Soviet Union was, perhaps, the United States did not (seemingly) ban any art, but Soviet Union did. In my own opinion, a government is free to participate in the free market themselves and promote whatever they want to promote. The bottom line is that they should by no means prohibit any artistic ideas or art making practices that are to their disliking. The final arbitrator of art is always the market: the art loving people.


Wunsch, Oliver. ‘Watteau, through the Cracks’, The Art Bulletin 100 no. 2 (2018), 37-60;

T. J. Clark, ‘On the Social History of Art’, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973), 9-20;

Hatt, Michael and Charlotte Klonk. ‘’, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 223-239.