Written by Josh Tiessen

A $45 cheque graced my ten-year-old hands. Beaming, I was elated with the first payment for a work of my art. I had been commissioned to complete a pastel drawing of a tufted titmouse bird by an older acquaintance. She became my first art patron.

Over 15 years later, I now sell oil paintings for significantly higher prices, ever aware of the unique blessing it is to make a living from fine art. If it weren’t for supportive art collectors, it would be impossible for me to sustain an art career.

I have been amazed that people of various socio-economic levels have purchased my work—ranging from the uber-wealthy owner of a luxury car dealership to the retired high school teacher who lives in a modest bungalow. Since few can afford my recent paintings (which take up to 1,700 hours to complete) I offer original concept sketches, limited edition prints, art books and artist notecards, so that all price points are covered. At the end of the day, becoming a patron of the arts comes down to your priorities, not price.

With many priorities vying for our attention (and our money) supporting excellent art is not often on our radar. Yet as Christians, it should be. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He pronounced that His work was “very good.” From the first page of Scripture, we learn that God is first and foremost a Creator. He painted the Milky Way galaxy, sculpted our effervescent planet, designed a plethora of exquisite butterflies, and breathed life into humankind. 

In Ephesians 2:10, we are called God’s poiēma, the Greek word rendered as “masterpiece” by the New Living Translation. Since we are made in the image and likeness of this Master Artist and are commissioned to faithfully represent Him, why would we settle for mediocrity in the arts?

And if Christians want to see excellent, substantive art being made for decades into the future, we need a sustainable economy for the arts. While I was happy to gift some of my early art and still donate prints to charity fundraisers, the reality is that artists, writers, and musicians need faithful long-term patrons in order to afford the time necessary to refine their craft and realize their artistic visions. So if you’re looking to support the arts, let me suggest a few ways you can do so:

Buy local

When I was the curator of a church art gallery, I exhorted the congregation to purchase the art displayed in our quarterly art exhibitions. As I stated, although my Grandma’s favourite store is HomeSense, when it comes to art it makes more sense to buy from home (I know, so cheesy!). Unfortunately, big box stores like HomeSense, IKEA, and Walmart have almost killed the local artist economy by selling cheap art prints made overseas for Western tastes. The anonymous artists are meagrely remunerated, if at all. 

Instead, consider visiting local art festivals, craft shows, artist studios and exhibition openings at galleries. If you’re unable to find anything you like locally, or are more comfortable purchasing online, prioritize ordering directly from artist websites or from Etsy; here, artists will not be gouged by third-party fees like brick-and-mortar art galleries that generally take 50 per cent commission.

One of the ways I’ve helped support local art buying is through founding the Stoney Creek Studio Stroll, a self-guided tour featuring local artists. We also had a strong emphasis on doing ‘art with a purpose’ by collecting items for the local food bank. Eventually the studio tour morphed into downtown street festivals in Olde Stoney Creek featuring small businesses such as gift shops, family-owned restaurants, local artists and artisans, a farmers’ market, and musicians. This has provided a higher profile for local businesses and artists, making people aware of what is in the community.

Support people you know

One of the benefits of buying local art is that you can make a personal connection with an artist or artisan, which you are reminded of when you look at their creation in your home. You are supporting the visual arts community in a much more powerful way than purchasing generic trendy art from big-box stores or online retailers. Are any of your relatives or friends artists? Purchase from them. Many artists feel like the ‘black sheep’ of the family, with their creations largely ignored. Taking an interest in and purchasing their art speaks love and support, which means the most coming from family and friends.

Showing support can also be a way to live out your faith among creators in your community.

Attend their art exhibition, book launch, music concert, or theatre performance. This is a key way for the Church to “influence the culture” and tangibly express the love of Christ with artists, writers, musicians, and actors.

Buy what you love

When it comes to purchasing art, remember to buy what you love. So often, we’re tempted to purchase what will increase our cultural status or signal our superior aesthetic “taste.” This may seem like a no-brainer but, sadly, many collectors of contemporary art purchase what they are told to like, such as the infamous work of a banana taped to a wall (Comedian by Mauritzio Cattelan) which sold for $120,000. 

Be wary of contrived, esoteric language chock-full with theoretical jargon intended to enamour the art buyer. A recent Christie’s auction catalogue described artist Barnett Newman’s Black Fire I as “a radically reductive and uncompromising aesthetic” which communicates the “universal dualities of existence.” The actual painting? An abstract canvas painted half beige and half black. It sold for $84 million.

Of course, this isn’t the world most of us live in, but it helps illustrate why it’s important to buy art that is meaningful to you and be leery of the “art-speak” sales pitch. While art can be a significant financial investment, genuine patrons of the arts know that a cherished original painting, sculpture, or fine-crafted piece of furniture evokes joy and meaning for years to come, in a way that a stock investment never will.

Fund the art you want to see

As the saying goes, “vote with your dollar.” Buying cheap art from big-box stores is viewed as a necessity to cover bare walls on a budget, or to have the option of changing one’s décor more frequently to keep current with design trends. 

Yet if you complain about the quality of Christian entertainment, why not financially support Christians who ignite your imagination? For example, the Bible Project’s excellent animated videos explaining the unity and beauty of Scripture, or The Chosen, a multi-season show about the life of Jesus and His followers. Both are free to watch because Christians have donated millions for these studios to purchase professional film equipment and hire top-notch animators and actors. 

On a much smaller scale, my Streams in the Wasteland project—a coffee table art book that comes with an original instrumental soundtrack by my brother Zac—was funded through financial backers, including by Love Is Moving’s publisher, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. 

Crowdfunded campaigns like those on Kickstarter can be another way to support collaborative creative endeavours you want to see come to life, especially since so few Christians receive arts grants from government programs. There are also non-profits such as Artists in Christian Testimony, Imago Arts, Porchlight (for musicians), and Incarnation Ministries, through which my brother and I are partially supported. These organizations enable you to become a monthly or occasional donor to support artists of faith, most of whom are not fully funded by their work. These organizations offer tax-deductible receipts to help you at year-end, enabling you to be more generous.

While we could bemoan the barriers Christians face in artistic spheres dominated by secular ideologies, let’s first look ourselves in the mirror and ask whether we are willing to invest in excellent and substantive art ourselves. I believe that becoming patrons of the arts is how we can achieve this, thereby reviving the Church’s historic legacy of patronage. Perhaps we will even nurture our generation’s own Michelangelo or Johann Sebastian Bach.

Josh Tiessen is an international award-winning fine artist, speaker, and writer based in Stoney Creek, ON. In 2020 he graduated with a Bachelor of Religious Education in Arts, Biblical Studies, and Philosophy. He has had solo exhibitions in galleries from New York to LA. His latest art monograph book, Streams in the Wasteland, released in fall 2021.

Read more from the “Finer strokes” column.