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On Patronage: Kris Austin

When I got to college, I kept surprising my peers by introducing myself as a writer. It wasn’t, “I’m an English Major,” or “I’m going to be a writer someday.” Whether it was at a freshman mixer or just to someone I met in the dorm common room, I said the same thing.

Hi. My name’s Aaron Pogue. I’m a writer.

There’s a worthwhile lecture to be made about the importance of knowing you’re a writer and making sure the people around you know it, too. I’ll save that one for another day, though.

This week I want to talk about becoming a master artist — and the people who help you make it happen. I met a lot of people like that during my time at college, but I have to give special distinction to one among them: my good friend Kris Austin.

From the very start, Kris and I were on the periphery of each other’s social circle, but it took us a while to actually connect. I was really only friends with my classmates in the Honors program (and only friends with them because we were required to socialize), and Kris wasn’t in that group. His fiancee Nicki was, though, and two of his three roommates, so I kept bumping into him.

Things changed when Trish and I got married halfway through our second semester, though. We moved out of the dorms, I gained a…well, a curfew of sorts, and it suddenly got a lot more challenging to keep up the casual relationships with some of my single friends in Honors.

So we started looking for couples friends, and Kris and Nicki were at the top of the list. That’s how, after two semesters of close encounters, I finally got around to making my standard introduction to him. “Hey. I’m Aaron. I’m a writer.”

He was fascinated. He was an I.T. major, not a creative type, but he was really interested in my career choice. He spent an hour and a half asking questions that let me talk about my favorite topic: writing. By the end of that, we were friends.

And, of course, during the course of the discussion the question of money came up — and with it, a lot of the issues we’ve been talking about here for the last few weeks. He asked me what a writing degree paid, and I said, “Well, until I hit it big, about thirty thousand a year.” (I was woefully uninformed about the earnings potential in business writing, but then, at the time I didn’t have any interest in doing business writing.)

He whistled and said, “Wow. I.T. pays way better than that!” Then he thought for a moment and said, “Tell you what. Nicki and I could live really comfortably on sixty thousand a year, so as soon as I’m making ninety thousand, I’ll hire you for the thirty and you can just focus on your writing.”

That left me speechless. He’d never read a word of my stuff — he barely knew me — but he was ready to commit a fortune to support my art.

Patrons, Artists, and the Public Renaissance

Of course, we were kids then. We had no idea how much it really costs to live comfortably, especially with kids of our own to feed and (ugh) multiple mortgages. I couldn’t make my family live on thirty thousand today even if Kris could afford to pay it.

Even so, the offer was an incredible gesture. I realized years ago that I’d never be able to take him up on it, but even since then, just knowing that he was prepared to make the offer back then has been a huge motivation to me. It has kept me writing when I was ready to give up, and it has spurred me to get better when I was ready to be complacent.

That’s the value of sponsorship, of patronage, of someone stepping up and saying, “I’ll pay you to create art. That’s what you’re supposed to be doing.” It’s an incredibly valuable exchange, and it’s high time we, as a culture, brought it back.

It won’t be easy, but I’ve got some ideas. Come back tomorrow for a look at the roles of patrons and artists in the public renaissance.

Photo credit Nicki Austin.

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