A look into the bank-led world of corporate art

Why are a growing number of companies choosing to invest in art?

December 4, 2014

A walk around the Standard Chartered headquarters in Central London is more interesting than it sounds.

While corporate offices are stereotypically cast as dull – cue white walls, lots of chrome and an endless sea of desks – the British multinational bank has a colourful and diverse range of portraits on display, depicting a remarkable array of people from all over the world.

Standard Chartered is not the only corporation with an extensive art collection. There are several million works of art on display in the headquarters and offices of corporations across the globe, almost as many as are displayed in city art museums. Every year, companies spend millions on purchasing art and the value of the artworks housed and displayed in corporate offices is estimated to be several billion dollars.

So why are big corporations investing in art? Céline Fressart, head of special projects at 1858 Ltd, an international art advisory firm headquartered in London, says that many corporate art collections are not investment led.

“They are there to make the buildings look better, to make employees feel better and to give a new edge to their identities in a way that shows they care about people,” she says. corporate art. The collection at Standard Chartered has been put together over the last decade under central stewardship. On the whole, the works are relatively inexpensive and the artists are seldom household names. “The philosophy behind the collection was to create something relevant to the bank’s history and our geography, but also to its clear values and people,” explains a spokesperson.

“Pictures of people have a very direct appeal. Who is that figure with the dark eyes looking wistfully out from the canvas? What are they looking at? How are they feeling? No matter what the superficial differences of dress and complexion might be, the sense of common humanity makes itself felt and strikes a chord with the viewer.”

David Rockefeller is widely hailed as the father of modern corporate art collecting. When he launched an art acquisition programme at Chase Manhattan Bank in 1959, he became the first high-profile executive to consult art historians.  

Now housed in the investment bank JPMorgan Chase, the collection Rockefeller started has grown to more than 30,000 objects in 450 corporate offices in many different countries.

Today, the largest corporate art collection in the world belongs to Deutsche Bank. The bank began collecting in 1979, with the aim of supporting the emerging talent of young German artists.

The collection currently consists of about 60,000 contemporary works in 928 buildings in 45 countries. Not only that, the Bank’s Global Art Programme actively encourages visual engagement and art education among its employees and it publishes an online magazine about the contemporary art scene at large.

Alistair Hicks, art advisor and curator at Deutsche Bank, explains that the idea for the Bank’s art collection was born from a reaction to the big splash of corporate spending in America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The art collection was categorically not devised for investment; instead, the idea was to break down the ivory tower mentality of an office. 

“It was very important to us that we used art that was accessible because we were trying to engage people,” he explains. “The point is to try and get the staff to enjoy it and have people come into the buildings to engage with the ideas of what is actually happening.”

Ultimately, art collections are done as a way to humanise big companies, giving them great public relations by showing that there is more to them than just status and finance. Plus Melanie Gerlis, the art market editor at The Art Newspaper in London, points out that the cost of purchasing artworks is relatively low.

“Yes, if you’re firing thousands of people it’s hard to justify buying lots of paintings,” she says. “But in the grand scheme of things, sponsoring an art fair or buying a few paintings does not cost as much as hiring one corporate lawyer for one day.”

And according to Fressart from 1858, the role of corporate art collections is likely to become increasingly important in future. “By investing in new artists, many corporations are working hand-in-hand with the cultural departments in different countries,” she says.

“They are supporting markets, creating markets and maintaining our global art heritage. Bit by bit, it seems that the corporate world is beginning to replace the cultural institutions.”