Throughout history tycoons, wealthy nobility and powerful bankers have patronized art, built museums, and amassed large collections, many of which now are accessible to the public in institutions the world over. Today big companies, from banks to multi-national corporations are the modern Medicis, sponsoring art and cultural events, establishing art programs and foundations for emerging artists, sharing their art collections with the public through museums or public programs, or funding their own museums or museum wings.
The trend for corporate collecting has developed into an established and influential feature of the art world rather than a fleeting phenomenon, despite the economic downturn that hit many companies in the 1980s and early ’90s. According to the International Directory of Corporate Art Collections, “the most important patrons of the arts during the past fifty years have been … not governments, or private collectors, or religions, or even museums, but corporations.” Although the history of corporate collecting is a relatively recent one, in a short period of time a significant number of companies- hotels, real estate developers, manufacturers, luxury brands and banks- have amassed impressive collections of both scale and historical importance, and have affected a great impact on the art world.
Financial institutions were among the first to establish corporate art collections and programs. Many, like Julius Bär, JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank, and UBS have amassed carefully assembled collections of thousands of works in just several decades. In a panel discussion held during Art Basel HK earlier this month by art insurance specialists, AXA, panelists from UBS, AXA Art and the Today Art Museum in Beijing, discussed the various reasons behind a company’s large-scale acquisition of art. For some companies the impetus to acquire art works stems from nothing more than investment reasons, or the desire to decorate its walls and provide a pleasant and inspiring environment for their clients and staff. But for many others, art collecting has become integral to their company’s corporate identity and a necessary tool to reflect the company’s corporate culture and values, as well as providing a “connection to the outside world” according to Hong Kong art consultant, Sandra Walters.
For JP Morgan the connection to art runs deep. Renowned philanthropist David Rockerfeller, who is credited as the pioneer of modern corporate collecting, started to look at art acquisition for the family associated Chase Manhattan Bank in 1959, an undertaking borne out of a lifelong passion for art and collecting. Today it is one of the world’s oldest modern corporate collections with over 30,000 works, among them pieces by Tony Cragg, Nam Jun Paik, Felix Gonzalez Torres, and Sigmar Polke.
Specialists in fine art insurance, AXA, started collecting in the 1980s, resulting in a collection of more than 3,200 works of art today, with a focus on modern and contemporary works of art, including works by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Bernard Frize, Zhao Wou Ki and Yan Pei Ming. AXA Head of Group Marketing, Silke Kastien describes the company’s collection as a manifestation of its identity and part of its DNA. “We live the art. It’s not about investment. It’s about collecting, living and loving the art…This differentiates us from other companies, and it makes us closer to our customers and understanding their needs”, many of whom are passionate art collectors. Having art in the environment and first hand experience of the logistics required in moving and maintaining a collection “improves our products and services” she says, “and it also attracts staff that works within the art industry.”
Art Basel partner, UBS, has a rich history of supporting and sponsoring the arts with a focus on promotion and educational outreach in contemporary art, as well as boasting a formidable collection of contemporary works. The UBS collection today includes over 35,000 works by new talent as well as globally recognized artists of the last 50 years. The collection largely focuses on mid career artists, like Yehudit Sasportas, Lee Bul, Gregory Crewdson, and Dubossarsky and Vinogradov, whose work is not yet commanding auction record and headline breaking prices. “We seek to target artists that are developing, exciting and influential,” says co-curator of the UBS art collection, Steve McCoubrey. But throughout its various international offices integration and visibility of local artwork has also increased, demonstrating a commitment to the local community, and engagement with its local client profile. “For the recent hang in the Jakarta office, we bought work by a group of Indonesian and Singaporean artists – photographers in particular,” explains McCoubrey. “The recent refurbishment of the Taipei office also prompted us to acquire a handful of works by Taiwanese artists.”
Swiss private banking firm, Julius Bär similarly understands the value of art for bolstering brand identity. “Art is an important part of Julius Bär. It is not only there to decorate empty spaces and walls, but also a trademark of the company,” states Barbara Staubli, one of Julius Bär’s curators. The company has built a collection of over 5000 art works, primarily of Swiss artists, many of which are loaned to museums and shared online via its own virtual museum. Established in 1981, this collection, like all the others mentioned, is managed by a team of curators and experts whose primary goal is to hunt out new talent, says Staubli. “At its core, this aim is not about making a good investment, let alone about speculating, for it is a philanthropic approach to supporting artists,” she continues. Of course, buying works whose value increases with time doesn’t hurt, and non-existent are the banks indifferent to an investment. But collecting contemporary artworks that reflect their time demonstrates a commitment to creativity and innovation, and to nurturing talent, values publicly championed by many institutions.
Often cited in company marketing materials is also the importance of investing in the wellbeing of the company’s employees by creating a dynamic, stimulating and inspiring work environment. “Art in the workplace offers a good starting point for an exchange of views among people…and young art is innovative and future-oriented; it opens up new horizons and motivates us to see things from a different perspective for a change,” says Staubli. UBS also focuses on collecting Swiss art, which includes artists like Pipilotti Rist, Fischli/Weiss and Dieter Roth, to highlight the company’s roots. “We can certainly say that our artworks are the most visible part of our Swiss heritage,” states Christian Zingg, the collection’s head curator.
Not to be left out Chinese corporate collections are also making their mark today. Although “Chinese corporate collections are not fully developed”, explains CEO of Today Art Museum, Alex Gao, there are some trailblazers. Beginning in the late 1980s with Wanda Group, soon Tai Kang Life Insurance, Hong Kong Parkview Group, and Xinjiang Guanghui Group all began to follow suite and amass Chinese and western contemporary art works that are today displayed throughout their various properties and developments.
Gao says there is now a greater understanding in China of the role art collections can play in corporate identity management for a company. “It helps a company build a brand, highlights their corporate culture and displays corporate social responsibility,” he says. “It’s the best way to improve a company’s identity and image.” A company’s art collection also helps to deepen its dialogue with community according to Walters. “A lot of corporations want and show their support and engagement with community. Contemporary art is a way to do this.”
As published on ocula.com, 30 May 2014