Exchange Strategy vol. 1 – Corporate Collections around the World

An assumption that art branding is quite a nice idea for building a company’s image is merely the first and, in fact, the easiest step of the process. What follows is a tortuous, full of pitfalls expedition through the thicket of choices, decisions and concepts. Interestingly, it rarely leads to what seems to be the natural environment for an efficient merging of art and business – young artists and their work.

Art branding
Author: Piotr Sarzyński, Translation: Dostępny
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Of course, the most tempting is to adopt an approach I would call an appropriation strategy. It allows to persuade the audience that our products are nothing but art. An old, tested and common method. Not too sophisticated, but quite effective. Art Branding, an interesting book by Igor Gałązkiewicz, provides dozens examples of furniture, clothes, watches, jewellery, handbags, shoes, but also cars, coffee, tyres, alcohols (bottles mainly), electronic cigarettes (IQOS) or fridges and TV sets proudly presented as “works of art”. It is easy to see that in this case products are much like bracket fungi or mistletoe: they feed on art’s reputation and trust in art, dangerously widening its boundaries to fit their own selfish, particular interests.

A much fairer relationship is ensured by an exchange strategy. In this case, both the business world and the art world are beneficiaries. This strategy is fairer, but often also the only one available. Just think of enterprises such as banks, insurers, mining or energy companies. Rich and ambitious. It would be rather hard for them to convince the audience that oil, electricity, bank account or insurance policy are works of art per se (even though these are often used as a disguise). But flirting with art and exchanging values with it may give an equally satisfying or even better effect than persistent arguing that a toaster belongs in a museum display case – and, mind you, not in a design museum.

Hestia Artistic Journey final exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art in Warsaw, 2019; fot. P. Litwic

This exchange may take on different forms. Art’s proposition is always the same: prestige connected with it, interest raised, aesthetic experience, taste of exclusivity and sophistication, etc. Business offers scholarships, competitions, publications, exhibitions, but also more advanced forms of promotion, available only for the richest and most convinced, such as art foundations and large exhibition institutions. This path has been chosen by companies such as Prada and Pirelli (Milan) or Louis Vuitton and Cartier (Paris). In Poland, this model is best represented by ERGO Hestia, which in its project Hestia Artistic Journey at one point went beyond the original concept of a competition for students and turned towards a more comprehensive programme (exhibitions, publications, art in public space, conferences, panel discussions, etc.).

Fondazione Prada, Milan; source https://www.artwort.com

The most spectacular form of the exchange strategy is, however, building own art collections. Serious corporate collecting began at the end of the 1950s, was cautiously developing over the next two decades, suddenly accelerated in the 1980s and reached its peak a decade later. In 1990, it was calculated that exactly half of Fortune 500 companies had their own art collections. According to experts, there are about 600-800 significant collections in the world. An impressive German publication Global Corporate Collections describes the 81 biggest, most interesting and best of them. Mainly from Western Europe and the USA, but also from Portugal, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Morocco, Russia (Gazprombank). From 24 countries in total. And none from Poland.

A corporate collection seems a perfect solution. First of all, it enables a company to decorate its premises in an impressive manner. Deutsche Bank, for instance, was able to visually enrich 60 out of 80 storeys of the two towers of its headquarters in Frankfurt following the rule: one storey – one artist. UBS boasts that paintings from its collection are to be found at its 850 branches and offices around the world, ING – 500, and JP Morgan – 450. Of course, the most precious works have always adorned CEOs’ offices, and the lower in the hierarchy, the poorer the artistic quality. With time, however, it turned out that these collections were also a great asset in building a company’s image. And so the works of art were not only hung on office walls, but had galleries built especially for them – La Caixa in Barcelona, Würth in Schwäbisch Hall, Cartier in Paris, Daimler in Berlin and Stuttgart, etc. Entire theories have been developed on the effect collections have on creating a positive image of a company and its ability to compete effectively in the market. Collecting is supposed to be a testament to a company’s dynamism, openness, modernity and broad horizons.

1. Deutche Bank Collection presented in London, 2016; source: https://www.fnlondon.com
2. Berlin gallery of contemporary art of the Daimler concern; source: https://art.daimler.com

Companies such as MontBlanc, Cartier, Daimler, Shiseido or Statoil brag about their large art collections. But a prevailing group in this field are banks and financial institutions. They are the ones that have raised corporate collecting to an unprecedented level. The American bank JP Morgan Chase is quite unanimously considered to have primacy here. Its systematic and considered purchases were initiated in 1959 by David Rockefeller. Today, the collection comprises 30 thousand exhibits the value of which is difficult to estimate. Usually two other corporations, from the banking sector, too, are hot on its heels. The first is Deutsche Bank, which since 1979 has gathered 57 thousand works of art by 5,800 artists from 40 countries, and the second – Swiss UBS Bank with its 35 thousand exhibits.

In this group, the Netherlands stands out in particular. Since 2005, the Netherlands Association of Corporate Art Collections (VBCN) has operated there. It has 50 members whose collections are estimated to comprise in total about 100 thousand works of art, their share of the domestic contemporary art market amounting to some 20-30 percent! The leader is ING Bank with 10 thousand works of art and separate national collections in Belgium, the United Kingdom and Poland. Virtually all larger banks follow in its footsteps, with the Dutch Central Bank at the forefront. Companies such as Oce and Ricoh (copiers) or TNT, known also in Poland, have their collections as well. Corporate collecting in the Netherlands is perhaps not extraordinary in itself, as similar activity can be observed in Switzerland, Germany or Austria. What is exceptional and unique, however, is the fact that art is collected everywhere: by paint, machinery or food manufacturers, and even… medical sector entities. Large collections belong for instance to University Medical Center Utrecht (2,200 works of art), Amphia Hospital in Breda, Erasmus MC in Rotterdam, and most of all – VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam. The latter’s giant building complex is stuffed with paintings, sculptures and artistic photographs no less than with life-saving equipment.

Jason Brooks working on a monumental work for JP Morgan Chase’s headquarter in New York; source: https://vimeo.com/253603891

This “art race” reached such a level that at one point it frightened the very participants of this business and art game. Collections of museum size were created which, in order to be taken seriously, required not only proper space for display and storage, but also conservation, insurance and scientific studies. Extensive teams of curators were appointed only to track new acquisitions. Then awakening came and brought an equally violent… slimming down of these collections. ING’s collection was reduced from 25 to 10 thousand objects, Dutch Central Bank’s – from 2,000 to 1,250. Some exhibits were donated to educational (universities, schools) and medical institutions (hospitals), other sold at auctions. Today, acquisitions are much more moderate, new exhibits selected very carefully. Exaggeration is never a good driver.

ING Art Center in Brussels; source: http://www.kogler.net/

What is collected? In theory, there are possibilities aplenty and some companies decide on quite sophisticated specialisations. The French company Engie collects 19th-century Academic art and Orientalism, Italian Intesa Sanpaolo – Russian icons and ancient Greek pottery. These can be sculptures (for those with a lot of space), graphics (for less wealthy), ancient maps. Up to a point, the hit of corporate collections was the painting of impressionists, modern classics (Picasso, Matisse) and American expressionists, but prices in this segment went up so much that even big corporations decided that they would pass. Old art seems to be a good idea, as it adds a noble patina and suggests permanence and reliability. The problem is that outstanding works of the greatest masters are less and less available in the market, and besides the image related to a turn towards the distant past is not necessarily the most desired in every industry (e.g. in the IT sector).

It comes as no surprise then that most corporations tend towards contemporary art. Preferably easy-going painting and artistic photography. Sculptures are less popular, and complicated installations and video-art chosen only exceptionally. Some corporations are patriotic and focus on local artists, other ambitiously build international collections. Two tendencies clash. The first, more popular, consists in choosing artists already verified in the market, with a stable and quite strong position confirmed by the “art world”. The second, less frequent, is an independent, ambitious search for new young talents, a focus on the youngest generation of artists.

Part 2.: Exchange Strategy vol. 2 – Corporate Collections in Poland | premiere: January 2021


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