Why is this interesting? - The Corporate Art Edition

On multinationals, original art, and soft diplomacy

Noah here. One of the fun parts of visiting a new client—when on-site travel was a thing—was seeing how some of the world’s biggest companies approached their workspaces. It was clear by their office design choices that companies with a rich history like GE and L’Oreal aimed to communicate their identity through their space. While some of that has gone away as new office trends swept the corporate world over the last decade, one thing you could generally rely on was impressive art hanging on the walls. Large corporations have been investing in art—both buying originals and commissioning work—since at least the days of the Renaissance.

Julie Mehretu’s “Mural” for Goldman Sachs

Of course, as hard times hit, companies have also moved on from those collections. In 2003, Enron’s collection sold for $1.74 million to make a small dent in the company’s $67 billion of debt. Apparently, GE deaccessioned its collection of over 4,000 artworks in 2013

While corporate art can certainly impress visitors, most of these companies seem to be more focused on the art’s effect on its employees (at least that’s what they say). UBS, who maintains the largest corporate art collection in the world, “has loaned or gifted some of its art to major museums like MOMA, but much of the collection is displayed in employee-only areas,” Forbes explained in 2012. “Works are rotated among UBS location every year or two. [The bank’s curator for the Americas Jacqueline] Lewis says she often gets frustrated calls from bank employees when a work they've grown attached to is moved.”

Why is this interesting?

While corporate art collections have long come and gone with the economy, a new threat has now emerged: technology. While the topic of the moment is remote working, the general shift to digital interactions between companies and customers has become well-established worldwide. Here’s how Forbes senior contributor Ollie Williams explained it last week:

Deutsche Bank, which holds one of the world's largest corporate art collections, is reducing it by 4,000 pieces, says Friedhelm Hütte, head of Arts Deutsche Bank. "The number of branches is becoming less and less," he says. "That has had an impact on the collection. The idea of our collection has always been art at the workplace."

The German bank has closed over 500 branches as banking goes digital, and has just rolled out a new “hybrid model” allowing employees to spend more time working from home.

Those who take corporate art most seriously seem largely focused on the brand message it conveys. If you’re a large bank trying to win the trust of some of the wealthiest people on earth, having very old and expensive paintings hanging on the walls can likely help buoy your brand perception. While they all say it is for the employees, and they’re the ones that see it most often, I can’t help but believe that the primary motivation of businesses spending that kind of money on art is to impress the people who pay you.

One of the open questions for the world of digital interactions is how this sort of soft power, as Colin might put it, will translate to a new realm. Ironically, the answer to this you hear the most often isn’t about technology at all: the real distinguisher for true luxury service is the ability to talk to a real person whenever you need it. Whether it’s a private banker or a Black Card concierge, it seems that human availability is the ultimate digital marketing flex. (NRB)


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Art of the Day:

Friend of WITI Felix Salmon has an excellent 2018 Departures article on the amazing modern art collection owned by the Dallas Cowboys and displayed at their massive stadium. As Felix explains, “Not all the fans love the art, of course, or even notice it—but that’s part of its charm. The stadium is not an art museum, fetishizing its precious objects and reproachingly making visitors feel inferior if they’re not viewing them in the requisite stance of high seriousness. Nor does the art require a lot of knowledge to understand. Nearly all of it is joyful, uplifting.” The piece below, Crystalline Structure #2 (2013), is by Alyson Shotz and part of the collection at the Cowboys stadium. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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