Would the Italian Renaissance would have been half as glorious if Cosimo de' Medici hadn't taken Michelangelo under his wing? Would Attila Richard Lukacs have become the infamous bad boy of Canadian contemporary art if Salah Bachir hadn't been around to pay his rent?
Popular opinion would have you believe that the classic arts patron -- the wealthy individual who forges private relationships to nurture a favourite artist as much as their own ego -- was long ago eclipsed by the equalizing power of the state. But there will always be a certain type of patron who quietly stands in the shadows, providing the financial means and emotional support that allows their hand-picked protégés to survive -- and sometimes thrive.
Bachir is a prime example. The Lebanese-born, Toronto-based entrepreneur is the president of Famous Players Media and publisher of its two in-house magazines, Premiere and Famous. His business dealings afford Bachir the affluence to pursue his passions, collecting art being his greatest.
His Toronto office, downtown condominium, house in Lebanon and country home in Paris, Ont., plus several warehouses, are all stuffed to the rafters with art, most of it by contemporary Canadian artists whom he also considers friends. There are many paintings by Betty Goodwin and Andy Warhol on his walls, and even more by lesser-known artists such as Toronto's Stephen Andrews and Governor-General's Award-winner Jamelie Hassan.
But Bachir's largest collection, in both size and value, is of homoerotic nudes painted by Attila Richard Lukacs. Bachir discovered Lukacs shortly after the young Edmontonian burst onto the scene in the Vancouver Art Gallery's now-famous Young Romantics show in 1985. When Lukacs moved to Berlin to paint his skinhead party mates, Bachir visited him and bought several grand-scale oils.
"He was courageous, he was out there," says Bachir. "There was a certain sense of activism in his work. But it wasn't just that. Somehow, it just connected with me."
He continued to buy Lukacs's paintings after the artist moved to New York. Sometimes, he paid much more than a work was worth. At other times, Lukacs would give him a painting for free. Bachir now owns about 30 of them, worth in total about $1-million, he estimates. He has never bothered to tally the additional costs of his patronage.
"Every once in a while I'd get a phone call," he says. "Attila would need money for this and that." Bachir would regularly send him cheques for $2,000; sometimes it was as much as $20,000. He assumed the money was used for rent and supplies. He didn't ask many questions. "It's never been," he says, "a dollars-and-cents issue for me."
Bachir has supported other artists by eagerly amassing their works. Lukacs, however, is the only one who received cash without art changing hands. "I don't think of the others as lesser artists," he says. "But Attila, well, he seemed to need that little step forward."
He is slightly offended when asked if he has ever had sexual relations with any of his artist friends. "That would make them sound like hookers. For the record, no. That's not why I buy their art. But I am in love with all of them."
Lukacs says that his benefactor's support has had an invaluable impact on his career. "Salah has helped me become, you know -- the monster that I am," he says laughing. After lying low for a couple of years, Lukacs recently resurfaced in Vancouver, where an exhibit of his new surfboard paintings is currently on display at Xeno Gallery.
"Artists don't always find patrons," says Lukacs. "It's rare. When I think of Salah's support -- not just financially, but as a friend who believed in me -- I can think of myself as a great artist. Well, I don't know if a patron makes one great. But it certainly makes one feel great." Such lavish displays of largesse are rare indeed.
But Gordon Floyd, vice-president of public affairs at the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, says there are probably thousands of underground patrons in Canada, quietly supporting artists in various ways. "I certainly know that among my artist friends, those who aren't well established are pretty much all getting some assistance somewhere, from someone."
He points to a Vancouver artist, for instance, with an admirer who paid for the production of a series of lithographs that the artist was then free to sell. He knows several others who have patrons who pay the rent. Floyd is reluctant to reveal their names. "To make a lot of noise about it would perhaps be embarrassing for the artist."
All that, despite the fact that the government gives no charitable tax credits to those who support individual artists -- only to those who make donations through or to a registered charity. "I don't think most patrons of this sort are expecting a big payback," says Floyd, hastening to add that the most common form of patronage is the generous buyer.
In that case, is it really philanthropy? Scott Watson, curator of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver, certainly doesn't think so. "That's an investment," says Watson. "It's an act of speculation. Love may be involved. And if you're buying a work by an unknown artist, you're taking a risk. But the buyer is also getting something in return."
Bachir doesn't disagree. "You're buying their work so that you can hang it at home or share it with colleagues at work," he says. "It's almost a selfish thing."
According to Watson, arts patronage should serve some broader social purpose. He points to Phyllis Lambert, founder and director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, and to the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto. "Ydessa collects, but she also spends a lot of her resources making her collection available to the public," notes Watson. "She and Phyllis have created institutions that are of incalculable benefit to the community."
Personal patrons are sometimes seen as a throwback to the past, when the arts were the playthings of the rich and powerful. "History is filled with examples of the difficulties between artist and patron, and having to accommodate a patron's needs, wants and tastes," says Watson. "Now we have a more collective attitude through the Canada Council. I can't imagine anyone who would want to go back to the old-fashioned model." But while the public purse might help some artists, there are others who would never get a chance if there weren't someone there to believe in them.
In 1996, Camilla Gibb had just finished her doctorate in social anthropology at Oxford University. Moving back to Toronto, the only job she could find was an administrative one at the University of Toronto, where she spent most days "hanging around the quad, looking morose and smoking a lot."
From time to time, she would be joined by an acquaintance. He was a wealthy businessman, a friend of a friend.
"What would make you happy?" he asked her one day.
Although she had always wanted to be a writer, Gibb had no published stories, not even the idea for a novel to pitch -- and thus, no chance of receiving an arts grant. Her friend asked what it would take to make the leap.
"Time and money," she responded.
"How much?" he asked.
"Six months and $6,000," she replied off the top of her head.
The next week he returned, handed her a cardboard box, and walked away. Inside, she found $6,000 in cash and a short note: "No strings attached."
"It was a huge leap of faith, but his motives seemed so simple and pure," recalls Gibb. "There were no more excuses. It was kind of like a kick in the ass."
Gibb quit her job, gave up her apartment, stocked up on cigarettes, and holed herself up in her brother's trailer at Sandbanks, a beach near Picton, Ont. She wrote a ton of short stories over the next six months. Some were published in small magazines and quarterlies. One just kept growing, until she realized she had a novel on her hands.
Eventually called Mouthing the Words, Gibb's story about a child ignored by her depressive mother and abused by her perverted father was published by Pedlar Press. It went on to rave reviews, won a City of Toronto Book Award, and has been published in a dozen countries. Gibb recently published her second novel -- with Doubleday Canada -- and has already written a third.
She still runs into her angel from time to time. True to his word, there were no strings attached: Gibb doesn't feel beholden to him in any way, other than to respect his wish for anonymity. "He was my Amélie," she says, in reference to the character in the popular French film, who surprises strangers with secret gifts of kindness. Certainly arts philanthropy is not always an entirely altruistic pursuit. When done through the right channels, there are tax breaks to be had. There are family names to be perpetuated with prizes (such as the Giller, for fiction; and the new Sobey, for the best young artist in Canada) and with rooms in public galleries (as is the case with Bachir at the Art Gallery of Ontario). And of course, there is all that purchased art to enjoy.
Still, is that any reason to deny a generous benefactor the title of bona fide arts patron?
"What Salah is doing is participating in the culture," says Toronto artist Andrews, who relies heavily on the $10,000 to $20,000 Bachir spends on his drawings each year.
"It's a significant portion of my income," says Andrews, who adds that he was supported earlier in his career by Toronto collector and dealer Bruce Bailey.
Besides, Andrews says, "He introduces me to people and brings other people to the work. He also supports me as a person. I keep him abreast of the developments of my work, and we have an ongoing dialogue throughout the artistic process. Having that validation is very important. Here is someone who believes in you, year after year, when sometimes you don't even believe in yourself."
Of course, the regular supply of cash doesn't hurt either. "It's very hard to be an artist," says Andrews, "if you can't get a roof over your head."
Paying the Piper
Arts Philanthrophy in Canada Saturday Money - The art of fundraising Monday Prizes - Halifax makes the art world happy Tuesday Volunteers - the ladies who don't lunch Today Patrons - Who are the new Medicis? Thursday Individuals - One man's deep pockets Friday Neighbours - How does the U.S. stack up?