Why collect art? “We are a large corporation, you’ve got to put something on the walls,” says Jacqueline Lewis, Curator for the Americas at UBS. More seriously she adds, “We want to create an interesting and stimulating environment for our clients, as well as our employees.” Many of the 35,000 objects in the UBS collection are displayed in employee only areas, such as this conference room in New York. Works are rotated among UBS location every year or two. Lewis says she will often get frustrated calls when a work moves because employees grow attached to the work they see each day.
At Progressive’s offices in Mayfield Village, Ohio, a walk down the stairs is a little more exciting than at most companies. The main stairwell is draped with candles, steel, wire, silk flowers and ribbons all dripped in wax. The installation, by artist Petah Coyne, gives the space the feel of a “haunted ballroom,” says Kristin Rogers, art education and communications manager for the Progressive Collection.
The auto insurance giant boasts one of the most extensive contemporary art collections in the corporate world, and it’s more than just decoration: the company says it uses the art to encourage its employees to think creatively.
Hundreds if not thousands of companies collect art—but only a few make an art of collecting.
Financial return is not the aim. “Art is a risky investment,” says Shirley Reiff Howarth, editor of the International Directory of Corporate Art, who points to the notion that there must be some financial payoff as one of the great myths that surround corporate art.
Some corporate collections are little more than furnishing, others are historical. The companies on our list of the top corporate art collections, however, fall under a third category of corporations that do more than just possess work. Nick Orchard, head of Corporate Collections at Christie’s Europe, calls this “proactive collecting.” UBS and Deutsche Bank, for example, have made art central to their corporate identities. Bank of America uses art to connect with the public.
To come up with our list of the best corporate art collections, we spoke to a range of writers, art advisers and curators. Their standard: the best collections use art to improve lives and to educate. In addition to expert interviews, we considered activity and buzz around the collection. This means owning fifty Picassos is not enough if they have been sitting in storage for a decade.
Some of the collections are managed by a staff of curators and others rely on outside advisers. Some are largely open the public and others are only accessible to employees. Collections that have been sold or donated to museums are not included and the corporation must currently maintain the collection to be considered for this list. None of the corporations we spoke with would disclose the value of their collection for this story.
One of the companies featured on our list is UBS, which owns 35,000 pieces of modern and contemporary art. The Swiss bank mainly acquires works by relatively unknown (aka less expensive) emerging and mid-career artists. UBS’ philosophy is “to be supporting living artists at integral stages of their career,” says Jacqueline Lewis, the bank’s curator for the Americas.
The bank has loaned or gifted some of its art to major museums like MOMA, but much of the collection is displayed in employee only areas. Works are rotated among UBS location every year or two. Lewis says she often gets frustrated calls from bank employees when a work they’ve grown attached to is moved.
JPMorgan Chase boasts an important collection that traces back to David Rockefeller, the father of modern corporate collecting, who started an art acquisition program at Chase Manhattan Bank in 1959. Widely credited as the first high-profile executive to consult art historians, Rockefeller began the modern trend of using art for more than decoration.
By the time Howarth began publishing her directory of corporate art in 1983, Chase no longer stood alone: The directory listed 300 collections. Today, she maintains a list nearly 800 strong and is writing a book on the 100 best corporate art collections (due out next year).
Through corporate mergers, most notably with investment bank J.P. Morgan, and continuing acquisitions, the collection started by Rockefeller has grown to 30,000 works. Although famous names like Sol LeWitt, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol are well represented, JPMorgan Chase also collects works by lesser-known artists. One such artist is Jonathan Callan, a British sculptor who constructs amoeba-like forms out of books. The bank bought a piece of his called Fun House in 2006; it cost around $12,000 and looks like a rose from some angles.
The largest corporate art collection in the world belongs to Deutsche Bank. It began collecting in 1979 with the goal of supporting young and emerging German artists. The bank has grown exponentially since that time and the collection has followed suit, growing to 57,000 objects.
Gerhard Richter’s colossal Abstrakt Bild (Faust) is the star of Deutsche Bank’s enormous collection. It holds a spot of glory in the firm’s vast Wall Street lobby. Visitors can see the three canvases before entering the building. Even muted by a window’s tinted glass the bright pinks and yellows make a big impression.
Each floor of the bank’s New York headquarters features a different artistic theme. One floor has all photographs, one houses drawing by sculptors and another focuses on the figure. Downstairs an exhibition space is open to staff, their guests and clients.
Liz Christensen, curator at Deutsche Bank, says, “We’re not buying for investment. But we’re not buying for not investment.” She explains that this means they are not worrying about resale value when acquiring a work, but they do want to make smart purchases.
Rogers, of Progressive, calls art a “cultural investment, not a financial investment.” He feels art is an investment in the people who work there.
Rogers organizes discussions and events around the collection and exhibitions the curators create from it. But he also relishes the opportunity for random discoveries. Employees sometimes tell him although they may not like a particular work that is ok, because they know they are not supposed to.
Betty Levin has owned Corporate Art Directions, a New York-based art advisory, since 1978. She agrees that, “most of the corporations did not buy as investment. Most […] bought because some executive loved art.”
The struggling economy, however, has put a dent in her business. She advises clients on everything from buying and mounting exhibitions, to educating employees and choosing works for an executive’s office. Recently, clients haven’t bought much. “There is a very cautious feeling when they buy,” she notes. “And I’m talking about good collections.”
Record-breaking auction results have made headlines this summer. But Levin points out that the market is only hot on the very, very high end. (Again owning a Picasso does not guarantee you will become a multi-millionaire, though owning the very best Picasso might.) Even in the best of times, a desire to be discrete would likely dissuade a corporation from spending $120 million on a single work.