Courting Corporate Collectors

By Shantay Robinson 

John D. Rockefeller is known as the father of modern corporate art collecting, as he amassed a collection of art for Chase Manhattan in 1959.  Today the JP Morgan Chase corporate collection is one of the oldest and largest in the world. The collection focuses on modern and contemporary painting, sculpture, works on paper and photography. The collection prides itself on diversity and eclecticism. Artists in the collection include Mickalene Thomas, Sanford Biggers, and Romare Bearden.  Other corporations followed Rockefeller’s lead, creating multi-million-dollar collections of their own. Deutsche Bank owns one of the largest and most important collections of art in the world. Their collection is made up of approximately 60,000 artworks. They’ve been collecting for more than 20 years, whereas the average span of collections are about 11 years old. Their concept for collecting is not about investment but about creating communities instead of creating ivory towers. Their average purchase is relatively inexpensive and could be purchased by most of the people working in the company.  

In the 1990s, many of Fortune 500 companies were building corporate art collections for more than investment purposes. Although investing in art is risky, it has been found that art is good for business. Not only can corporate collections increase in value, art boosts creativity, productivity, and morale of the workers. Art in corporate settings also encourages diversity and opinions. While many businesses buy art for existential reasons, they also buy art to make money. Making money and investing are two different and specific things. There are tax strategies in place that allow for deductions when corporate collections are loaned to art institutions and bought because the purchase of art is a business expense. And for billionaires avoiding taxes, buying art can offer them millions of dollars in tax cuts. Any charitable act concerning the art collection results in money saved. When the art is held in storage or loaned to museums, they don’t have to pay taxes on them. The purpose of corporate art collections might have existential intentions but there is no denying that housing a lucrative art collection is a wise business move on the corporation’s part. 

Mira Howard, COO of Wrapped Fine Art, notes, “the value of an art collection in a corporate environment lies in its ability to craft a corporate narrative and shape an attractive workplace.” The art collected by corporations communicate a message about the company and creates corporate identity. It shapes a public image of the corporation. And it makes the company feel human. Art can inspire employees and improve productivity. So, not only is art an investment that could appreciate in value monetarily with time, the art itself serves a valuable purpose increasing the productivity of the employees of a company, which is invaluable. The art that resides in the offices of corporations where the employees spend most of their time are conversation starters and inspiration to the employees to think outside the box. The art also tells those visiting the company’s office something about the company. It might be that they are forward thinking and unconventional or that they believe in their local community. Whatever the message is, art serves a special purpose in conveying that message. According to Andrea Seehusen, founder and CEO of International Arts Management, one tip for investing in art collections is starting with a well-known, established artists and then look for local artists who “fits the spirit of the company.” Collecting local artists might indicate that the company is invested in their community. Artworks on the walls of corporate offices provoke conversations that speaks to the company’s ideals. And if a company wants their clients to think positively about their motivations, they will collect art that speaks to their missions. 

Corporations aren’t the only entities that can benefit from their collections. Artists who are interested in being acquired by corporate collectors can benefit from those that are interested in investing in local artists. Artist trying to be acquired into corporate collections should get to know companies who are collecting art. Another route artists can take to get acquired by corporate collections is to approach the company directly by asking for the art director, art consultant, public relations manager, or corporate communications director. Corporations either have inside personnel for acquiring work or they hire outside art consultants. For artists, searching for art consultants in their area might allow them access to a range of corporate opportunities.  Contacting architects and interior designers is another road to accessing corporate collectors that could possibly land an artist in a corporate collection if the artwork suits the design of a space. While being acquired by a Fortune 500 company would be great, looking at new companies moving into up and coming neighborhoods is another way to establish an artist as being worthy of a corporate collection. Most importantly, an artist’s work should enhance a company’s mission. 

Image result for Flag for the Moon, Die Nigger 1969

Faith Ringgold, Black Light Series #10 Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger, 1969

Faith Ringgold shares a story about corporate clients from Chase Bank visiting her studio before she was widely known for her story quilts. Ringgold’s early work was overtly radical. One of her artworks Flag for the Moon, Die Nigger (1969) was in her studio when collectors stopped by. Through this work, she wanted to express there were millions of dollars spent to send men to the moon and no money for hungry children. The words “die nigger” are “hidden” in the stars and stripes of the United States flag. The corporate collectors thought the “flag” would be great in their collection until they looked closer at the words embedded. They left the studio that day without purchasing, but Ringgold implored them to come back. They ended up purchasing an artwork, albeit not Flag for the Moon, Die Nigger

It should be mentioned that corporations collecting art aim to use their artworks to decorate their office spaces in most cases, so they might not be looking for artwork that is salacious or risky. Given this is true, it shouldn’t be the artist’s goal to cater to the corporate collector if salacious and risky is their thing. Getting their work into a corporate collection takes work, but here are some tips from Rene Phillips – The Artpreneur Coach: Your style should be in line with the corporate personality of the collection of the company you want your work to be in. Answering the following questions should help the artist determine which companies to pursue: “Does it reflect and enhance the corporate image of the company? Does it decorate the walls and improve the working environment and productivity? Does it qualify as a sound investment? Is it pleasing to the eye? Does is boost morale?” Answering these questions will help the corporation acquiring an artists’ work explain to their board and employees that a work of art is important and worthy to include in their collection. This consideration is important, ultimately because the money spent on art could be funneled back into the company, and both the board and employees should understand that money used to buy art is a worthy investment for existential purposes as well as monetarily. 

Photo: Picture That website

While corporate collections should be on artists’ radars, companies looking to create reputations of innovation and creativity might also want to consider corporate collections. According to Art Right, “corporate art refers to any artistic property within a collection managed by a company.” There are thousands of corporate collections worldwide. The International Association of Corporate Collections of Contemporary Art is an organization that shares best practices and expertise for professional corporate curators made up of 55 members from 19 countries. Banks also offer services for art collections including, borrowing against collections, helping to prepare for sales, and estate planning. Building a corporate collection for a company could benefit from collaboration with an expert, like a corporate art consultant who will ensure proper installation, care and maintenance.  There are also services provided by companies like Artemus and Turning Art that allow companies to rent art short term or long term with the option to buy or purchase credit. 

According to Strategy and Business, in 2017, the total spending for art sponsorship in North America was $993 million. 70% of global corporate sponsorship goes to sports and 4% goes to the arts. While the majority of sponsorship dollars goes to sports and only a small percentage goes to the arts, 54% of corporate leaders said the arts improve quality of life in a community and 49% said the arts create a vibrant community and society. Sponsorship dollars are valuable to a plethora of art institutions. Many events are hosted by sponsorship dollars in order to cater to their constituencies and make events possible. Considering the amount of money spent on arts related sponsorship, that being only 4% of the total number of sponsorship dollars spent, there is possibly more money that could be spent by corporations for the arts. It might be worth catering to companies who are interested in art particularly because they already show they are interested in the arts. Progressive Insurance, UBS, Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, and Daimler are just a few of the larger corporate art collectors. 

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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