The Bahamas or Brahms, what would you chose?

If I gave you a million dollars, what would you do with it? You probably wouldn’t spend it on art to decorate your home. You probably wouldn’t donate it to your local art museum. You probably wouldn’t commission a sculpture for your town hall. You’d buy a Ferrari, or a mansion, or move to the Bahamas, or all of the above. Renaissance millionaires would go for the art.

“Patrician merchants and bankers and popes and princes supported the arts as a means of glorifying themselves and their families,” (421) declares McKay in A History of Western Society, “Powerful men wanted to exalt themselves, their families, and their offices” (id.).  Instead of collecting art for its beauty, McKay portrays patrons as commissioning art solely for the power associated with it. One of the largest culprits of this was the Medici family who declared that they had spent “the astronomical sum of 663,755 gold florins for artistic and architectural commissions,” (McKay 421) from 1435 to 1470. The equivalent of this in current US dollars is under debate, however, it could be up to $10 billion.

Smart History has a great collection of videos about art throughout time. I found a great video about patronage, specifically about the David statues of Florence. The city of Florence commissioned a series of marble prophets for the buttresses of the cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore. One of the artists commissioned was Donatello who carved a marble statue of David; however, it ended up being placed in the town hall. This changed the symbolism of the David statue from a religious to political. David represented Florence overcoming the wars that had recently ended, and became of metaphor for the city. Soon after, the Medici effectively took over Florence. Although Florence was technically still a democracy, the Medici had all the power, and of course, to display their power they used art and architecture.

They built a palace that looked much like the town hall, and as a centerpiece, they commissioned Donatello to create a bronze David. By commissioning this art the Medici made a clear statement that they were the ones who had overcome the city and that David was no longer a symbol of Florence’s victory, but rather of the Medici’s. As if that was not enough, the Medici commissioned a smaller statue of David and gave it to the city. As soon as the Medici were overthrown, Florence commissioned Michelangelo’s famous David, and seized the bronze Donatello statue from the Medici. Four David statues created a very clear but unspoken political argument. I found it completely amazing, to see the power of the art so pronounced. This story is really what showed me that in the renaissance art really was a sign of power.

The ultimate result of the Medici fight for power was four beautiful statues for the city. Throughout the renaissance the public benefitted from the art commissioned by wealthy patrons. Today, we no longer have many extraordinarily wealthy patrons that spend their fortunes on the arts, because art is no longer connected to power in the way it used to be. So if wealthy patrons aren’t supporting the arts, then who is? Today, while some money comes from individual donors, a larger amount of the money comes from businesses, lots of little donations from individuals, and not to be forgotten, the National Endowment for the Arts. Because we are no longer in a society where art is the biggest priority for the wealthy, we need to find other ways to support the arts. The NEA is one of those ways. By reading a few New York Times articles, I found that public funding of the arts is also more beneficial than just provided works for the public to enjoy. According to representative Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat who is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Arts Caucus, “If we’re trying to stimulate the economy, and get money into the Treasury, nothing does that better than art.”

If I haven’t convinced you of the importance of supporting the arts, then think about the people. Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center said, “An employed dancer is as important as an employed construction worker. His or her family has many needs, owns a home, buys a car and makes an impact on the economy.” It’s true, if we are going to try make more jobs and stimulate the economy, art is the way to go. The arts provide many jobs, and fuel the economy. “One of the profound things about culture is the amount of indirect employment and spending it generates,” said Kate D. Levin, New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner, “Even the smallest organization can record the fact that the parking lot down the street and the dry cleaner around the corner and the restaurant nearby all do better when the organization is functioning.” So, if I gave you a million dollars now, what would you do with it?


Works Cited

McKay, John P, Bennett D. Hill, John Buckler, Clare Haru Crowston, and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks. A History of Western Society. 9th edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. Print

Pogrebin, Robin. “Saving Federal Arts Funds: Selling Culture as an Economic Force.” The New York Times. 15 Feb. 2009. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.

Pogrebin, Robin. “Republicans Try to Abolish Arts Groups.” The New York Times. 24 Jan. 2011. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.

“Patronage: A Case Study (David)” (Video),, Speakers:  Dr. David Drogin, and Dr. Beth Harris (14 min 49sec). Accessed 23 Feb. 2012,



  1. ilana1234

    Hey Katie, I really liked you post!
    The beginning question asking what we would do with one million dollars was a great hook, and nice job drawing it into your conclusion. Why do you think owning art was perceived as a display of power during the Renaissance? Thanks,

    • katiereindeer


      I’m glad that you enjoyed my post, and I hope it gave you some information as to the power and importance art. I think that there are a few reasons why art was a display of power. The first, and probably most obvious, is its display of wealth. The best equivalent of this today would be an expensive car; it was something to show off how much money you had. Another reason, was the symbolism of art. The story of the David statues, shows that art could hold lot of symbolism. The minority of people that could afford art for their home could have a piece of art that symbolized their power, or they could even have their faces panted into a painting. Thanks again for reading.


  2. brianthemathematician

    Hey Katie, some really interesting ideas here! Do you think art and power will have a connection in the future, or do you think that age is done?


  3. claretab

    Hi Katie!
    Wow! I loved reading your post. It’s really different from the kinds of thins we have to do for the Age of Ex blog. Having recently been to Italy and Florence, where I saw Michelangelo’s David and the Medici palace, I completely understand your argument that art was a statement of power. We’re talking renaissance here, so what do you think caused art to be thought of in this way? Maybe some other larger factors or beliefs from that time period? And if art were to become a priority for politics in modern times, how do you think our society would be different?
    And for the record, I’d definitely donate some of that money to the Portland Art Museum!
    Thanks for a great post

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