Which famous pop star owns Frida Kahlo’s ‘Self-Portrait with Monkey?’ Answer: Madonna. Who owned it before she did? Answer: computer giant IBM. Strapped for cash in the mid-1990s, the corporation sold off a large proportion of its legendary art collection, which it had established in the 1930s and expanded massively during the 1950s. When the collection was sold, a celebrated example of corporate art purchasing strategy disappeared, although the company received the cash injection it needed.
This anecdote springs to mind when contemplating a fascinating exhibition called Art in the Workplace, to be mounted on a 1000sqm vacant office space in the Clydesdale Bank Plaza on Waterloo Street in Glasgow. We should expect neither Kahlos nor the purchasing power of US corporations, but this exhibition of 70 art works—borrowed entirely from some 40 corporate collections in Scotland—is the largest of its kind ever to take place in the UK. The exhibition is not curated; the companies themselves have chosen what should represent them.
There’s Alice Shaw’s ‘Tapestry of the Festival Fireworks ’, alongside Raeburn’s portrait of ‘V iscount Melville, Governor of the Bank of Scotland from 1790 to 1811’, both owned, naturally, by the Bank of Scotland. There are a couple of John Bellanys and a Sheila McInnes, owned by the communication consultants Liddell Thomson Ltd.
The organisation behind the exhibition is Arts & Business (A&B), which exists to forge links and promote understanding between two worlds which have not always communicated to best advantage. To accompany the show, A&B has produced a book, also called Art in the Workplace, which not only lists the works on display, but also throws light onto aspects of corporate art purchasing. It includes case studies of four buyers, a section on how to buy, advice on insurance and other practical material. According to Barclay Price, director of A&B in Scotland, Art in the Workplace is not primarily about enabling the public to view works of art normally hidden away in office suites. It has a more significant goal.
‘In an Arts & Business/ICM UK poll, nearly three-quarters of respondents said that they would like to see art in their workplace,’ he says. ‘However, only 48% said that their employer invested in workplace art. My hope is that this exhibition and publication will encourage the other half of employers to begin displaying art.’
The exhibition aims to reveal to those employers the main benefits of purchasing art. A&B argues that art enhances the company brand and can greatly improve the working environment. Surprisingly, perhaps, the reasons businesses cite for buying visual art have narrowed in recent years. Investment opportunities are also hinted at within the organisation’s literature, but are not presented as the main incitement to buy art.
Straightforward philanthropy has been replaced by a new concept called ‘building stronger communities’. In the 1960s, IBM could claim it was investing in top-quality art for the sake of that art alone. Today, the emphasis is on social benefits: ‘through the arts, businesses can support education, skills development and tackle a variety of social issues’.
In Understanding International Art Markets and Management, published last year, the New York academic Joan Jeffri describes how corporations began to sponsor blockbuster exhibitions in the 1980s rather than purchasing art themselves. In the UK, the pension fund for British Coal famously bought art for investment purposes. But this kind of economically strategic art buying has fallen from favour.
One A&B success story is the artist-in-residence programme at Glenfiddich. This came about when a director of the distillery’s parent company William Grant & Sons witnessed a similar scheme at a vineyard while on holiday. The company, which had an existing art collection, was then looking to update the Glenfiddich brand, and visual art was perceived to be ‘cool’ at the time. A&B helped William Grant & Sons set up Glenfiddich’s international residency programme, which is now in its fifth year. However, the project has highlighted some conflict in the two main purposes behind corporate art strategies: branding and internal communication.
‘There were initial sceptical reactions from some staff to certain of the artworks,’ explains Price, ‘and so questions about whether less challenging work might be suitable in the following year came up.’
Yet as the three-month residencies developed, staff became more confident about the work on display; media coverage of the programme was broadly positive and a change of perception about the brand began to take place. Originally the residencies were open to artists working in Europe; in 2005 the pool expanded to include those from North America, South America and Asia: important new markets for whisky.
While the Glenfiddich residencies are to be commended, the relationship between artwork and corporation can be remote. According to a spokesperson for the residency, ‘each artist donates a work to Glenfiddich—the artist chooses which’. This is impressive, but the results may be short-lived. The company makes an assessment annually on whether the scheme is working well, but will William Grant & Sons be remembered in 20 years, when all the other works created by Rosalind Nashashibi during her residency this year are viewed or sold on?
Deustche Bank (DB) is another company well known for its collaborations with the art world. It has contributed a promotional video to Art in the Workplace, although no pieces of art. In Art Works: British and German Contemporary Art 1960-2000, Alistair Hicks and makes an interesting boast about the massive collection of German and British art owned by DB. ‘The bank does not buy art for investment,’ they state. ‘It puts art on the walls to bring staff and clients into contact with the arts and to support young artists and the galleries that represent them. Works are purchased on the primary market, from galleries or occasionally directly from the artists but not from auction houses.’ The artists from whom DB buys direct are no doubt thrilled that their work has been purchased, but perhaps a little disconcerted that their art is not deemed to have any long-lasting value.
Privately, experts in post-war German art will tell you that DB’s purchasing strategy is clever but rather cynical. Despite having art-sodden offices in London and Frankfurt, DB has a reputation for buying small works by major artists. This allows them to list the names of major artists alongside theirs at comparatively little cost. DB’s is commonly considered the most impressive example of corporate arts strategies – the name crops up frequently in conversations with Price and other experts in this field, but it is important to remember that this is a low-risk strategy. In addition, by employing curators who have worked in the publicly funded art world, it is buying into a value system that has its foundation in galleries benefitting from state support.
But is there anything wrong with a corporate body buying art for investment? In the wake of the second Glasgow International art fair, one is reminded of curator Francis McKee’s selection from the Jumex collection, This Peaceful War, one of the highlights of last year’s successful programme. Jumex is a juice manufacturer based in Mexico. Its collection benefits from the singular vision of Eugenio López Alonso, the inheritor of the family business and fortune. ‘I don’t think Jumex buys primarily for investment. It must be a consideration, but I think the owner is personally and genuinely very interested and enthusiastic about contemporary art,’ says McKee.
Yet although the roots of the collection lie in his personal taste, as the collection has grown, curators have been employed. This validates new purchases and the collection as a whole. The original market prices are enhanced. The Jumex project has a unique element that remains hidden in Europe, where Alonso is treated as if he were an idiot savant of the art markets. According to McKee, Jumex acts as an ‘unofficial arts council, in a way—distributing funds for artists to travel to exhibitions, and funding projects for Mexican artists abroad. It is a huge commitment which, I believe, goes beyond “looking good” on their part or any philanthropic interest.’
Jumex’s investment is financial and cultural and it boasts a far wider than simply marketing. This Peaceful War included works that explicitly criticised corporate behaviour . Santiago Serra ’s pictures of a Jumex truck blocking a slip-road and Doug Aitken ’s harrowing depiction of a wilderness spoiled by a diamond mine were just two examples. Yet Jumex purchased these works and the money went to the artists. As McKee’s title suggested, a conflict exists—but it is open and peaceful.
Alonso is, of course, a rare breed. He is buying with acumen and bucking an international trend. Iain Robertson, editor of Understanding International Art Markets and Management, explains in the book that the situation at the top of the art market has changed a lot since the halcyon days of IBM. To secure works for the public as a whole, state galleries have plundered the market of Old Masters. There are, notes Robertson, only three Rembrandts currently in private ownership. The rest are owned by public galleries. This means that those who wish to invest in art must concentrate on the cutting edge.
There is also a bewildering profusion of this art. Robert Hughes noted that ‘every two years [American] culture produces as many art-related professionals as there were people in Florence at the end of the Quattrocento’. The market is being simultaneously squeezed and saturated. So the speculators respond by hoovering up artworks, which bolsters their market value. According to Robertson, the high end of the market will collapse as a consequence of this dual pressure. No wonder corporate art collectors—hesitant purchasers at the best of times—are unnerved by the prevailing climate.
Another factor—which Barclay Price acknowledges with admirable honesty—is that the content of contemporary art is not always appropriate for corporate collections. If one accepts the arguments of Robertson and Hughes, explicit content can be seen as a means of attracting attention in a crowded contemporary art market. What is ironic is that themost supposedly establishment-shocking artists—for example Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst—employ corporate management and production techniques to make their work. They act as chief executive officers, creating ideas and designating the direction of the enterprise but rarely actually producing anything. Interviewed in the Arts Newspaper recently, Hirst said: ‘I like the idea of a factory to produce work, which separates the work from the ideas.’
This worldwide trend does not stop corporate bodies investing in creative ways. As Art in the Workplace attempts to show, you don’t have to be a Mexican playboy with plenty of fruit-juicing cash to spend. Some companies are making very specific commitments in old-fashioned ways. Fionna Carlisle’s commissioned portrait for Total E&P UK PLC has a reassuringly medieval feel to it. According to Jenny Costello, a spokesperson for the company: ‘We sought a partnership that would help it to achieve the following: a relationship with an artist who has similar energy levels as the company, to capture the range of people and personalities who work in the oil and gas industry, and to leave a legacy to Scottish heritage.’
This approach has attracted the interest of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery; while Total E&P—not the most well known of companies to the public at large—has received some publicity.
Standard Life, meanwhile, has responded to the possibilities of its massive new office space by quietly building up Scotland ’s first ever corporate collection of contemporary photography. The company already owns a number of significant photographic works, and these will be augmented over the coming years. It ’s an investment which the Chancellor himself might consider prudent.