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September 15, 2006 4:33 pm

Lending banking a new creativity

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At lunchtime, the public atrium at the bottom of 60 Wall Street contains the normal assortment of city workers eating sandwiches or grabbing a coffee. A more unusual discovery is a number of art installations.

One, “Hip Hop New York” by Cao Fei from China, features a video installation of locals from New York’s Chinatown doing freestyle hip-hop moves. The installation is surrounded by everyday objects you might pick up around Canal Street.

In another installation, you can sit in an armchair in a booth and press a button to provoke a simulated storm, complete with thunder and lightning flashes above and torrential rain on a screen next to you. Or you can press another button to induce a restful sunset. This installation, by the Russian-born artist Vadim Fishkin, who lives in Slovenia, is called “Choose Your Day”.

Both were transplanted from an exhibition in the Byrd Hoffman Watermill Center on Long Island, supported by Deutsche Bank. Now the bank is using them to bring to life the public spaces around its Wall Street headquarters.

Deutsche Bank has about 50,000 pieces – the world’s biggest corporate art collection. But its contemporary art collection isn’t a static group of paintings that have haphazardly found their way into office boardrooms, promptly to be forgotten.

Deutsche Bank is one of a handful of global companies with a museum-quality collection displayed not only in public atriums and its own onsite galleries but exhibited in museums all over the world.

“We have five exhibitions circling around right now,” says Liz Christensen, curator of Deutsche Bank Art in New York. “We have a German photography show going through Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Brazil – entitled ‘More Than Meets The Eye’. Eventually we hope to bring it to the US.”

Another Deutsche Bank Art exhibition touring Europe is “Blind Date”, 42 pairings of recent acquisitions with works the bank has owned for some time. Deutsche Bank has exhibited its art for 27 years.

UBS recently decided to curate and exhibit a museum-quality collection. A few years ago, it extracted the best of the 40,000 pieces it had hanging in offices worldwide.

“We were not able to look at all of the 30,000 or 40,000 artworks we have, so there had to be a certain amount of preselection,” says Petra Arends, collection executive of the UBS art collection. “We included 1,000 works from the former PaineWebber collection that we inherited in the US and about 2,000 from the European collection of UBS. We then had them evaluated by three independent experts, who proposed the 1,000 pieces that then formed the UBS collection.”

UBS launched the collection in December 2004 and many of the works later appeared as a temporary exhibition in the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Part of the collection has been shown in the US and in Switzerland. It is now on show at the Tate Modern in London and some of the works will travel to Asia next year for exhibitions jointly curated by UBS and local museums.

UBS is scouring the world for museum-grade works to add to its collection. Christensen has been working for Deutsche Bank since 1993 and in that time Deutsche’s collection has grown fourfold.

Aside from acquisitions, Deutsche Bank regularly commissions works that also appear in public museums. At least once a year it commissions a site-specific artwork to be displayed at Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin with which the bank has a joint venture.

The colossal pop art painting “The Swimmer in the Economist” by James Rosenquist, which dominates the lobby in Deutsche Bank’s London headquarters, came into being because the bank commissioned it for the museum.

“[Rosenquist] was invited in 1997 to make a work specifically for the Deutsche Guggenheim, which at that point was brand new, to mark the Y2K [year 2000] changeover,” says Christensen. The epic painting depicting aspects of war, art history and commerce was originally wrapped, floor to ceiling, around three sides of one room at the Guggenheim.

With banks investing a considerable chunk of cash in increasing their collections, how do they determine the acquisition policy or the value of such collections? After all, plenty of banks are involved in arts sponsorship, plenty have Constables in their boardrooms but museum-quality art collections that travel all over the world are extremely rare and, some would say, strange assets for a publicly listed company.

In New York, Deutsche Bank has a small annual budget for acquisitions and cash for one-off exhibitions or collaborations, which are approved by an art committee of senior managers of the different businesses of the bank.

“We've got a person from wealth management, a person from global markets, someone from the Deutsche Bank foundation, someone from global banking,” says Christensen. “We review the art which is up for consideration and they take a vote on it. It helps get more eyes on what is happening.”

UBS prefers to keep its bankers out of the acquisitions process. The UBS art collection advisory board is made up of four external art experts, from North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America.

“They propose artists from their continents, which our curators then research. This research is presented at a biannual meeting of the advisory board. The advisory board members and the curators make the final decision and there is no banker involved.

“This helps us focus on the right artists and ensure the collection remains
of museum-grade quality, rather than selecting a work because a banker likes it or the artist is a friend of their daughter or something like that,” says Arends.

Valuing the collections is difficult. Both banks include works by famous names of the 20th century but they also focus on contemporary art, so they often buy works from relatively young and unknown artists to support the arts community.

Arends says the point of acquisitions for the UBS collection is not just to acquire great art but to foster new talent, which is not necessarily an expensive pursuit. “You can of course invest in artists where you pay millions but that is not our intention. We also want to unearth new talent in the countries where we do business.”

The average purchase price for the Deutsche Bank collection is about £1,000 ($1,890) but the amount spent by the art committee on acquisitions varies enormously. For example, it is hard to compare Deutsche’s recent purchase of 60 individual collages by US artist Ellen Gallagher depicting advertisements for old African-American magazines – digitally manipulated with the details painstakingly highlighted in Plasticine – to one photograph bought from a series by an unknown artist.

Still many older pieces have appreciated rapidly. Christensen cites the “Wrapped Reichstag” by Christo, a sketch that was a precursor of the wrapping of the German parliament in Berlin after German reunification. It was bought in the 1980s and was one of the first acquisitions for Deutsche Bank’s New York collection. Its present home is the executive offices on the 20th floor of 60 Wall Street. Christensen says it is now worth $150,000 or more. “Of course, the bankers always want to know ‘how much is this piece or that piece worth?’ she says.

Not that Deutsche would be interested in selling. Christensen says works are rarely sold on the open market and the only times that it has wanted to offload some more traditional landscapes or pastels that do not fit with the broader collection, it has held employee sales, which proved ex-tremely popular. “We almost had to break up fights in the end,” she says.

In any case, the value of publicly exhibiting the bank’s art needs to incorporate the many more intangible benefits. “We have been doing research on it since we launched the UBS art collection in 2004 and of course it raises awareness of the bank,” says Arends. “The focus on a fresh perspective and contemporary art mirrors what we want to do as a brand.”

But in that regard, both banks, in showing big contemporary corporate collections, walk a fine line between observing certain ethical boundaries and fostering creativity. After all, some of them are pretty edgy.

“There’s always controversy but we try to respect people. We want to help people enjoy contemporary art. We don't want to alienate them. I think most of the time people like it and it also grows on them,” says Christensen.

Jessica Morgan, curator of Deutsche Bank’s “Blind Date” exhibition, says emp-loyees react to the art exhibited in their offices much as they would to a blind date. Responses can go one of three ways.

“It could be love at first sight, a gradual awakening to hidden beauty or complexity, or outright rejection and dismissal,” she says. Visit one of Deutsche Bank or UBS’s public shows and make your own judgment.

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