Collecting art is an addiction. Neither its cost nor its supposed value as an investment has much to do with it. If you are rich you buy expensive art by recognised masters and get advice from experts, but if you are poor you follow your own taste among the lesser or little known and probably enjoy yourself just as much. The addiction is not confined to individuals; it can catch businesses too, although it’s usually started by an individual, as for instance by David Rockefeller in 1959 when he set up what is now the J.P. Morgan Chase collection. He brought in a selection committee of leading American museum directors and curators, and the collection now boasts, in the words of its current curator, Stacey Gershon, of being ‘a who’s who of the international art world of the 20th century’.
Deutsche Bank began collecting systematically in the 1970s, when a member of the board asked two professors of art to help design ‘the Deutsche Bank Art Concept’. The Bank now has a collection of 50,000 items and calls the 130 conference rooms in its London branch after the artists whose work hangs there. Its Frankfurt headquarters is even more art-obsessed: each of the 55 floors of its twin towers is called after a German artist, and the artists’ names appear beside the lift-buttons. ‘Travelling down the building,’ writes the bank’s art adviser Alistair Hicks, ‘the artists get younger and younger: the floors are arranged chronologically.’
Baring Brothers also began collecting art ‘purposefully’ in the 1970s, starting with topographical pictures and a few abstracts, moving on to 18th- and 19th-century English watercolours and figurative works by early-modern British artists. When Barings was acquired by the financial services group ING in 1995, its art collection and the addiction went with it, though ING’s particular interest is in Dutch modern art. As for Flemings, founded by a Scot in the 19th century and sold to Chase Manhattan in 2000, its collection of Scottish art has taken on an independent existence as a separate foundation, with its own gallery in Mayfair, where samples from some of these corporate collections are now on display.
The collectors are not all banks. The London law firm Clifford Chance began collecting prints — from Whistler to the present day — in the early 1960s and now owns nearly 900. The art insurer Hiscox started with a collection of Russian Constructivists and now sponsors and promotes contemporary artists as well as collecting them. The fashion chain Monsoon began collecting only in 2000 but already has 50 works loosely connected with ‘the idea of travel and the transference of culture and commerce’. Unilever, which commissioned the five works so far shown in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, has its own collection of 500 works by contemporary British artists.
None of these prosperous corporate addicts admits to buying art for investment. Instead, they talk enthusiastically of the ‘stimulating working environment for the bank’s staff and clients’ or ‘the democratic impulse simply to “make the day go better”’, and of supporting and encouraging young artists. Nor do they necessarily spend lavishly. Deutsche Bank’s average purchase price for each of its works is under £1,000, and it deliberately passes on its addiction by helping its staff to buy art themselves.
The sample of work on display in this over-ambitiously subtitled History of Corporate Art Collections is too small and eclectic to give much idea of the real quality of the collections. ING scores well with its coherent group of paintings by Wyndham Lewis, Tristram Hillier, John Nash and Ivon Hitchens, as does Hiscox with its set of small Russian Constructivist drawings by Popova, Kliun, Goncharova and Malevich. The rest look rather a job lot, which is a pity since the idea is a good one and would surely work well on a much larger scale. But there is one oddity, the Drambuie Collection of glassware from the 1740s, elegantly engraved with the subversive symbols of the Jacobite rebellion, whose leader Bonnie Prince Charlie is supposed to have given the secret of the liqueur to a MacKinnon of Skye. A later MacKinnon began to pass this other addiction on to the public in the early 20th century.