January 10, 2014 6:48 pm

When worlds collide

The argument for corporate art collections is well enough rehearsed: it enhances image and brands the company’s culture

You can spot them a mile off at any art fair or auction: they wear clothes that are slightly too smart, and talk to their clients with dispassion rather than any genuine enthusiasm. They say wise things but rarely anything startling. They do have expertise, and can talk numbers. Their less knowledgeable interlocutors seem to hang on their every word. Their conversations frequently end on an abrupt and triumphalist note: “We’ll take it. Do you take American Express?”

They are the new breed of art advisers, arguably the most important characters in the lurid soap opera that the world of contemporary art has become. Who are they advising? The corporate world, of course, which over the past 30 years has involved itself ever more deeply with the buying of art.

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Peter Aspden

A new book*, supported by research from auction house Bonhams, celebrates this seemingly symbiotic relationship between fine art and big business. If you put all the prestigious art works belonging to corporate collections in one big space, it would make quite a museum.

The argument for corporate art collections is well enough rehearsed. It enhances corporate image; it creates a stimulating environment for employees; it brands the company’s culture; and it helps foster community relations. These are all valid and, to varying degrees, proven justifications.

Put more broadly, what art gives business is lustre. Financial institutions can be ruthless places. To put money first is not always to champion the noblest human virtues. Art, by contrast, is a result of the human imagination reaching into the unknown. It involves lunatic levels of risk, boldness of vision, and dedication to truth. Put money next to art, and you satisfy just about every human impulse there is.

I have never set foot in Italy’s Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena but to read of its 27,600 works of art, including Benvenuto di Giovanni’s “Madonna della Misericordia” fresco of 1472, generally thought to be the beginning of the world’s first bank collection of art, makes me want to open an account there. It would feel classy and comforting, everything you would want from somewhere looking after your interests.

The lustre of aged and dignified masterpieces is one thing but the contentious arena of contemporary art is quite another. Here’s the surprising thing: of the 300 companies covered by the handsome book, half are concerned exclusively with collecting contemporary art. Fewer than 10 per cent of the companies collect no contemporary art at all.

Again, the logic is easy to follow: contemporary art has, in recent years at least, grown in price, often at extraordinary rates. Although all corporate institutions tumble over themselves to emphasise that investment value is the least important determinant of their art collections, it cannot do any harm to show you can pick up weird-looking trinkets for a knockdown price and watch them grow in value.

Buying the latest in art trends also shows that you are forward-looking, unafraid of the future, and have your finger on the cultural pulse. You will never be taken by surprise. You know which way the wind is blowing. When it comes to receptiveness to innovation, all you have to do is point at the strange objects in your reception lobby. See! We get original thinkers!

But all this, if we pause for reflection, is counterintuitive. Contemporary art has, for some time, dedicated itself to overturning preconceived ideas about the world. Notwithstanding its absorption into the market, it is by nature subversive. It shows scant regard for orthodoxies, and loves nothing more than to shock.

Do we seek the same values in corporate behaviour? Of course not. When we put our money into a bank (banks are by some distance the biggest collectors of art, accounting for about 40 per cent of the institutions featured in the book), we want it to be safe, and to grow securely. Do we really want a bank to be thinking outside the box when its business is to look after what is literally inside its box?

. . .

A few years ago I wrote about an advertising campaign by Dresdner Kleinwort that featured giant posters of Jimi Hendrix and Maria Callas, attempting to persuade us of the bank’s ingenious thinking about the world. Touched by genius they might have been but Hendrix and Callas, respectively flaky and tempestuous, made the worst role models of all time, I said. Was the financial world really aspiring to that kind of recklessness? I wrote the piece in May 2008, and within months the answer to that question turned out to be a resounding “yes”.

The only conclusion to be drawn from this dysfunctional alliance between art and business is that artists, whatever their intentions, are infinitely capable of being co-opted by more powerful actors on the world stage. That was realised, with no little relish, by Andy Warhol, whose dollar signs on canvas remain the icons of art and business’s breathy bromance.

 

My favourite quote from the book comes from Robert Hiscox, founder of Hiscox Insurance, who is described as “renowned for his good eye, and has amassed an excellent collection, some of which he has sold and realised significant gains, funds that he has reinvested in new work.”

“I love modern art,” says the plain-speaking Hiscox, “and selling insurance for it.” A man who truly knows synergy when he sees it.

* ‘A Celebration of Corporate Art Programmes Worldwide’ by Peter Harris and Shirley Reiff Howarth (Wapping Arts Trust)

peter.aspden@ft.com, @peteraspden

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