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Why do corporations collect art – and what should they do with it?

28 July 2016

North Rhine-Westphalia’s purchase of Portigon’s collection for 30 million euros was probably more emotional than rational, but may still be the right decision. It looks straightforward. The struggling bank is owned by the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, so it is simply a question of keeping the assets within the state. Yet the possible divorce between the company and its collection highlights the fact that most companies do not think hard enough why they are collecting in the first place, and are certainly making a mess of it when it comes to selling.

The average lifespan of any collection is roughly 11 years, which is not too dissimilar to the average length of most people’s marriages. Relationships with art can be a similar to those with human beings, though one has more chance of being rational with art.

I was lucky enough to work with the Deutsche Bank collection for 20 years. Its collection has lasted a good deal longer than most: in the 1970s it devised a concept that should be used as the template for corporate collecting. The idea was that collecting for a corporation should not be primarily about financial investment. The average purchase is relatively inexpensive and could be made by most people working in the company. The aim is to use the corporation’s offices as a way of engaging with the communities in which they are set, rather than creating ivory towers. Importantly, the concept stipulated that art decisions should be taken out of the hands of one or two very senior people and that art should become a tiny but integral part of the DNA of the Deutsche Bank.

This concept, or any indeed corporate art concept, only works if it gets continued support from the staff. This means, as with every relationship, that it has constantly to evolve. This has made it very difficult for companies to buy old art, as it makes them seem backward-looking: museums and private collectors have marginally more freedom here. Contemporary art is about change: this means that those companies with contemporary collections have to keep people involved, in order to lessen the chance of a divorce between company and art.

Divorce is likely to be messy and ugly, but it does not have to be. Just because a collection has been a success does not mean that it always will be. The prime function of collectors is as supporters of new art and as caretakers. Companies are not usually geared up to be good caretakers: the working environment is not a museum environment.

In 2008, Deutsche Bank gave a permanent loan of 600 works to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Such gifts cannot be the only solution. Shareholders of companies are not usually happy to give their assets away. Companies that wish to have a long-term relationship with the arts have to consider how they can occasionally sell as well as buy. This is complicated by the burden of expectation as to how companies should behave. To sell works of art is far more complicated for companies than buying them. Just as one needs a concept to buy, one needs a concept to sell too. The art market is a sieve of gossip, so the mere fact that a company is selling is seen as bad news. If companies are going to go on supporting new art they must find a way of recirculating their old art. As yet companies are not paying as much attention to how they use the art world to sell their work as buying it – they are simply not employing the right people. Running an art collection is hard work as it is about integrating the concept with the aims and culture of the company: it only takes one or two key people to decide this is not part of the company’s priorities. The trouble often is that it is precisely these people who make the decisions to sell and they just want shot of the art. It is difficult to spin this as anything but plain bad news.