The woman patron and the arts and culture sector in the Netherlands

Beeld door Anna Hettinga
Beeld door Anna Hettinga
Nienke Amarins Hettinga (redacteur)

The Netherlands is in the middle of a major shift of the financing of the arts and culture sector.Former State Secretary Halbe Zijlstra forced the sector to look for private supplementary financing because of a major cutback in subsidies of 200 million euros in 2012.Since then, the Dutch government is increasingly withdrawing as a financier of the sector. Consequently, patronage, the protection and financial favouring of the art and culture sector by private donors,has become an indispensable link in the financial chain of the art and culture sector. Generally, research shows that women are the most likely group of people to give to the arts and culture sector.

Nonetheless, contemporary women patrons do not play a significant role in research done on patronage in the Netherlands at all. This may be because there is an assumption in our Western society that women, professionally, know little of art.The discourse is that producers of art are male and white; women are objects of representation rather than producers of art.In other words, one could assume that gender and its possible prejudices matter when it comes to acknowledging women's contribution to contemporary patronage. Because of the increasing importance of patronage and the important and undervalued group of women patrons in the Netherlands, I choose to explore the motives and ways of giving of this particular group. By exploring these concepts, I tried to increase the knowledge about the experience of women patrons in the Netherlands, contributing to a broader picture of contemporary patronage. Subsequently, the research investigated the following question: How do modern women patrons experience the practice of patronage in the arts and culture sector in the Netherlands? To answer this question, three semi-structured interviews were conducted among women patrons active in the arts and culture sector in the Netherlands. The research was exploratory, with the aim to create a broader view of the experiences of the woman patron, not to find saturated results.

What is a patronage relationship? 

First, to understand the way women patrons experience their practice of patronage, it is important to understand what a patronage relationship is.At the beginning of the patronage relationship, the patron and the artist or cultural institution stand across from each other. They have a shared interest: the artist or cultural institution wants to make or exhibit art and the patron wants to facilitate this. They will take a look at themselves: What kind of relationship would suit them, under what conditions, with what profit? Consequently, when they find each other, a process of patronage will follow. Examples of patrons are the art lovers who support their protégés through their own private culture fund, the large and small donors around concert halls, museums and theatres and the young artist who use crowdfunding to convert the appreciation of their admirers into cash.This is all different and yet all patronage, because in all those relationships there is a dynamic exchange of value: both parties invest, and both parties benefit.In other words, a patronage relationship can only exist if each gift, from the patron, is followed by a counter-gift, from the artist or cultural institution.Now that we understand how a patronage relationship works, let us take a look at the key findings of my research. 

Collective giving 

Interestingly, theabove dynamics regarding patronage relationships are based on one on one exchange between an individual patron and an artist or cultural institution. Several studies, however, seem to agree on one thing: women patrons generally give in a collective rather than in an individual manner.One reason for this appears to be that, historically speaking, women patrons were less wealthy than their male counterparts.One can also see this collective giving in the present day. More and more giving circles are rising up in the Netherlands. In giving circles, givers bundle their donations for a specific theme that is close to their hearts and connects them. The giving circle then jointly decides which projects will be supported by them.Women participate more often in these circles than men. The motivation for these women is that it appeals to them to delve into specific themes together and thus get the chance to give ‘’collectively.’’

As expected, the women patrons in my research also prefer to give collectively. As mentioned before, two of the three patrons have a named fund, connected to one of the biggest art patronage organisations in the Netherlands. One patron mentioned that she decide to get a named fund because ‘’it is mainly that knowledge that I can use, because first of all I do not know which varieties there are and also not where they are.’’ This statement corresponds with the fact that women are indeed more attracted to dive into themes regarding art and culture collectively, rather than alone.However, the women patrons do not give collectively because they are not able to offer the same amount of economic capital as their male counterparts. All three patrons indicate that they feel like they have just as much access to what they can offer. They mentioned that knowledge-sharing and decision-making were their reasons to give collectively. Interestingly, one patron mentions that she always gives collectively "because it has more impact."

Giving from an empathy point of view 

A number of studies have examined gender differences in motivations to give, especially regarding empathy. Importantly, these studies explore giving in general, such as donating to charities, not specifically about arts and cultural patronage. These studies found women are more likely to give when fundraising focuses on helping others and they believe that their gift will make a difference.Similarly, empathy as a motivation to give corresponds with three motivation mechanisms of giving, namely altruism, efficacy, and value, described by Réne Bekkers, Professor of Philanthropy and the director of the Center for Philanthropic Studies at the Department of Sociology of the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam, and Pamala Wiepking, Professor of Societal Significance of Charitable Lotteries at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

First, altruism is giving without seemingly expecting anything in return because the giver only cares about the goals of the organisation.Interestingly, two women patrons mentioned that altruism is their number one motivation. For example, one patron mentions that ‘’I do not need anything in return.’’ These results are consistent with the expectation that women are more likely to give based on empathy.

Second, efficacy, referring to the perception that the given contribution makes a difference to the artists or organisation that they are supporting.Again, efficacy has similarities with empathy regarding the fact that women are motivated to give when their gift is used efficiently. Interestingly, all three women patrons mentioned efficacy as their number two motivation. One woman patron mentioned that it is ‘’very nice’’ that ‘’you see that something is happening with it [...] like I have managed to get it in the right place.’’

Last, value means that the giver cares about the fact that the artists or cultural organisation should make the world a better place.In other words, people who care deeply about, for example, social issues, order and justice and also feel responsible for society as a whole are more likely to give because they are motivated to make the world a better place. Through giving people may wish to make the world more equal by, for example, empowering women.Again, this corresponds to giving from empathy, with women wanting to make a difference with their donations. As expected, value was placed as the number three motivation mechanism by two women patrons. One woman patron mentioned that ‘’my values [...] they consist of diversity and inclusivity and the connection between those two,’’ claiming that it is important ‘’that in our society things become visible [...] I think is just important.’’ Conclusively, the women patrons in this research are indeed motivated to give on the basis of empathy. 

(Not) giving to women artists

All women patrons in this research indicate that they are aware of gender inequality in society and are, or have been, involved with this issue. For example, one woman patron mentions that ‘’I believe that there should be equality between people [...] and that certainly also applies to women.’’ Thus, the women patrons in this research indicate that they are aware of gender inequality in our society and they do not distance themselves from these issues. This corresponds with another motivational mechanism by Bekkers and Wiepking, namely, awareness of need, meaning that one is only motivated to give when they become aware of a need for support.In other words, the women patrons in this research identify with other women in our society, leaning towards the ‘’shared experience’’ explanation of giving; givers feel compelled to help people with whom they identify.Consequently, one would expect, exploring the statements given by the patrons, that they indeed would consciously choose to give to women artists or cultural organisations involved with gender equality.

However, this does not correspond with the reality of the women patrons; when it comes to their art patronage, choosing a woman artist is not the first priority. For example, one woman patron mentions that ‘’in the case of music, the theme of women does not play a decisive role,’’ another woman patron claims that ‘’I'll look at it, but it is not the primary motivation.’’ One can wonder, why do these women patrons claim to find gender equality a priority in our society, but do not prioritise this when it comes to the art and culture sector? This could have something to do with the assumption, present in our society since the Romantic era (1800-1850), that art and culture have to be autonomous, judged on their own content, norms and development. Valuing art for reasons other than artistic reasons, such as gender equality, has been out of the question ever since.This research shows that the ‘’art for the sake of art’’ ideal is still quite dominant in the present day and time. 


Conclusively, this research reveals the nuance, complexity, and potential in art patronage by women. This study deepens our understanding of women patrons who have made commitments to art and culture, revealing the power of their patronage in a more general sense, and the individual agency of each patron herself. While different reasons and experiences often guide these women patrons giving behaviour, the acquisition of wealth gives these patrons hyperagency and a platform to leverage their patronage and exert influence on others. Interestingly, however, is that the women patrons fit into the ‘’stereotypical’’ image of what is expected from women regarding the arts and culture sector in our society. Because, the discourse is that producers of art are male and white; women are objects of representation rather than producers of art.Women seem to be restricted to being supporters and ‘’keepers’’ of art and culture in their communities, in accordance with the prevailing sex/gender prescription of women as servers.However, one can question whether women patrons even experience these prejudices and, if so, if they experience certain disadvantages as a result.

Nonetheless, the present day woman patron seeks to take the place of her male counterpart through her art patronage; being an autonomous agent, freely choosing what she wants to support and creating a narrative around this process. However, the present day woman patron is simultaneously placed in the male-created passive position regarding her art patronage; she is portrayed as focusing on her nurturing relationships, by giving collectively, from an empathic point of view and, either consciously or unconsciously, ignoring women artists in the process. Even though the present day woman patron claims agency through her art patronage, this does not subvert gender equality in the arts and culture sector.
However, by being a woman patron she does trouble the order from within by showing that art patronage is not necessarily ascribed to men. Unlike others, these women are using their influence and resources in creative and wide-ranging ways in an attempt to support the art and culture sector in the Netherlands. Regardless of background or life experience, they have signalled their belief in the importance of investing in the arts and culture sector to help it flourish.

About the author 

Nienke Amarins Hettinga (1997) graduated from the master Genderstudies at Utrecht University doing her internship research and thesis under the supervision of prof. dr. Helleke van den Braber on the subject of patronage studies. This article is based on her internship research The modern woman patron in the Netherlands: Experiences, giving behaviour and motivations (2022). Read the full research report or want to collaborate? Contact the author via


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