Artists have been hit particularly hard during Covid for the past couple of years. But it’s not the first time in history that that’s happened. Since history does tend to repeat itself, it’s smart for artists to emulate what artists have done in the past to survive and thrive during the most trying of times. The ones that thrived used artist patronage.

Artist patronage – William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare was at the top of his game. The Renaissance was roaring along, giving artists the chance for the first time to be entrepreneurs. This meant they no longer had to choose between working for just the church or the state. They could create their own businesses with the help of wealthy patrons. They could work for anyone who had the money to pay them. Shakespeare used this to his advantage and started looking for as many patrons, and as many different types of patrons as he could find. He got a jump start on artist patronage.

Patronage from the Queen

Shakespeare’s first royal patron was Queen Elizabeth. She loved drama. Especially the study of the ancient classical period, which Shakespeare would perform for her at her court.“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was probably one of the plays that was done as a private performance. During the Queen’s forty-five-year reign, London went through a cultural awakening, and England prospered during the second half of her reign. Professional theaters were built in England for the first time and her love of theater gave birth to literary geniuses such as Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Ben Jonson through her generous patronage. It was one of the golden ages in English literature.

Artist patronage during the plague

Shakespeare also had other things working in his favor. The invention of printing meant that many more people would be able to read his works. His biggest competitors, Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe, had both just passed away. It was a fabulous time to be an artist, and an even better time to be William Shakespeare. Luck and timing were on his side. That is, until……the Bubonic Plague broke out. Theaters were boarded up and ordered closed until further notice. (sound familiar?) This caught artists by surprise, who relied on the theater for their livelihood.

Artist diversification

But Shakespeare had learned early on that you have to diversify — and have a backup plan. Though Shakespeare is known as one of the best and most prolific writers in history, it wasn’t just his writing alone that made him wealthy. He became a shareholder in a joint-stock company and leading cast member for two decades. So, he was making money as a writer, actor, and business owner. But even with multiple streams of income, the challenges he would face were numerous: competition, censorship, fire, war, and of course, the Plague.

The King’s Men

Shakespeare’s company was called The King’s Men, and they were in the middle of one of the best theatrical seasons ever with “King Lear” and “Macbeth” when they were forced to close their doors. The Bubonic Plague was raging and they had no choice. All of that hard work was shut down in an instant until further notice. Shakespeare still had a family to feed, so he got to work and pivoted into a different direction.

Patronage of artists

This is when Shakespeare sought out the patronage of the Earl of South Hampton. He was a very wealthy and spoiled young man who was dipping his toe into the patronage of artists and poets. Shakespeare was already known for his plays, and admired by the Earl. Shakespeare knew that the Earl was facing a huge fine if he didn’t marry by a certain age, and he was prepared to do his part in helping to resolve that problem. He pledged his service to the Earl. The Earl’s patronage during the Plague allowed him to spend his free time writing without having to worry about paying the bills. So, when the Plague was over, he was further along than many of the other writers of the time who had spent their time touring through the countryside for whatever money and free meals they could get.

Most artists wouldn’t have thought about the possibility of becoming a matchmaker. After all, they were artists! But Shakespeare didn’t think like other artists.

Shakespeare reinvented

Shakespeare reinvented himself during this period by writing and publishing two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and the “Rape of Lucrece”. Writing poetry stretched his creativity and writing skills, and ultimately made him rich. His playwriting also improved, and he was ready to hit the ground running as soon as the theaters reopened. The hard times taught him to become more prolific – and they reinforced the value of diversifying his income streams.

With a portfolio of wealthy patrons and a rabid following of fans of his plays, Shakespeare was able to do something few of his fellow artists could do. He simply made a living with his art alone. He was able to continue writing at a time when the plague had the theaters closed down. Shakespeare used his time wisely, writing poems and sonnets when he couldn’t make money writing plays. And he was diversified in his art and in his financial portfolio. He was using artist patronage to his advantage.

The modern day artist as entrepreneur

Today, artists can do the same thing as an entrepreneur. But most artists still choose the traditional route of waiting to be hired by someone. This guarantees they will always be under someone else’s control, will never get the lion’s share of the profits, and won’t have creative control. Some A list celebrities have managed to negotiate these things, but the A list makes up only a tiny fraction of artists out there.

Today there are playwrights who want to follow in Shakespeare’s shoes and create a career as an entrepreneurial artist where they do get creative control and profit sharing. These entrepreneurial artists are using the same methods the Lord Chamberlain’s Men used, and some are even creating new business models that would make William Shakespeare proud.