Art plays a very different role in contemporary workspaces than we might think, argues Shirley Reiff Howarth, of The Humanities Exchange in her 2014 publication The Silent Partner: Art in the Workplace. In this short, pragmatic, and informative read, Howarth outlines reasons a company might collect, debunks the myth that corporate art collections are necessarily monetary investments, and argues that the corporate art world is not only thriving, but remains one of the most stable markets of the industry.
The ‘value’ of art in the workplace is most tangible as a means for improving employee and corporate experiences. In fact, artworks boast the unique quality of bridging gaps between employees and clientele by providing inspiring talking points in meeting rooms, lobbies, and offices. These conversations foster bonds between internal and external parties, and since now artworks are often selected for the function of expressing corporate identity, conversations around artworks tend to also centre around themes which define a particular corporate culture. For example, Anish Kapoor’s Turning the world upside down III, which greets visitors in the lobby of the Deutsche Bank headquarters in London, provides cause for a discussion around innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, values that are integral to the Deutsche Bank mission.
The Deutsche Bank Collection, which amasses one of the largest and most impressive collections of contemporary art in the world, demonstrates a shift that Howarth claims has only become prominent in the last one or two decades. The author purports that although traditionally corporate collections have reflected the tastes of an elite few within the company, corporations are increasingly building collections around what is appropriate for employees and for the brand. “Art in the workplace is really a part of a larger trend… towards making the office a better place to work. And improving the quality of life for everyone.”
The ‘everyone’ of which Howarth writes encompasses not only individuals working in the spaces where the artworks are displayed, but also refers to artists, members of the public, and clients. Corporate art collections today are incorporated into broad corporate responsibility programs that are closely tied to public and community relations. These programs include external art activities such as partnerships with museums, the lending of artworks to other non-profit institutions, or establishing prominent art fairs. Exhibitions, sponsorships, tours, and educational programs can empower local communities for the benefit of employees and non-employees alike. Additionally, company collections can open doors for supporting a specific arts community, such as through awards programs like the Deutsche Bank’s DBACE Award, or the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize.
Howarth lends advice to curators and artists who may feel intimidated or otherwise put off by the practice of corporate art collecting. The author notes an apprehension especially felt by artists, who fear ‘selling out’ will exploit their creativity at the expense of integrity. Yet, as Howarth keenly points out, without the long history of corporate patronage, reaching as far back as the Medici in Renaissance Italy, art would be a very different – likely much poorer and less diverse – profession than it is today. Perhaps most importantly, Howarth stresses new trends: corporate art collections today should and do seek to empower through the support of artistic value, rather than obtain profits through investment potential.
That is not to say that a discussion of money is absent from Howarth’s text. Indeed, perhaps the most poignant claim made by the author is that the corporate art market is the most stable branch of the global art industry. This seems counter-intuitive; the current financial climate is one in which economic crisis has prompted bankrupted companies to auction off massive collections, and banks such as The Monte dei Paschi in Siena (arguably one of the oldest intact collections in the world) are currently facing considerable scrutiny. Particularly, banks are and have historically been the largest players in the corporate collecting world. Yet, the modern consumer has developed a healthy suspicion of the activities of large corporations, especially financial institutions. So, considering this, how can it be that the corporate art world is more stable than any other aspect of the industry?
Howarth uses an analysis of the post-1980s era to demonstrate the durability of the corporate art market. During the 1980s, the bankruptcy of corporations – and the subsequent auctioning of several massive corporate collections – led many industry experts to predict the death of art in the workplace. However, though the recession was not without its casualties, Howarth eagerly notes that: a) as a result, programs have been established to ethically recycle bankrupted collections in public spaces; and b) the number of companies with collections actually grew substantially. Intriguingly, as new collections replaced the old ones, so too did new collecting strategies replace the traditional grandiose approach taken in a pre-1980s era.
This new strategy is transforming the workplace and contributing to the blossoming corporate artworld we see today. Every collection tells a unique story of identity. Microsoft, for instance, almost exclusively collects contemporary art produced by living artists. The general theme of the collection is an energised sense of boundless innovation, an appropriate concept for a technology company. The Monsoon Art Collection, on the other hand, reflects a corporate commitment to ethical trading by focusing on supporting artists in the regional areas of Central and South America, Africa, Asia, India and Afghanistan. Simmons & Simmons, a London-based law firm, prides itself on a dedication to new and emerging contemporary British artists. This mission statement serves a business purpose as well, as the firm fosters close relationships with artists by additionally providing legal services to them early in their careers. (Law firms even occasionally publish art catalogues for their clients.)
Unsurprisingly, art changes the way employees feel and think, stimulating creativity, analytical reasoning, and ultimately improving job performance. Furthermore, employees are happiest (and most efficient) in workspaces where they exercise some degree of control. Art collections can play an integral role in this process. Howarth writes, “Rarely does one person alone have complete authority for making art purchases in a corporation. The trend now is to have art selection committees made up of interested employees, as well as art people, and administrative staff.” The author notes that in addition to this role in art selection, many companies involve employees in deciding where and how specific artworks are displayed.
The central thesis of the book is that art in today’s workplace performs crucial roles enhancing employee experiences, expressing corporate values to clientele, and fostering a positive ‘give-back’ influence in the community. Howarth’s case stresses the importance of not seeing artistic investments as having explicitly monetary values. Although the author analyses these practices in a logical and business-relevant way, she sees the corporate art collection as a reciprocally beneficial arrangement, with great potential for upholding social responsibility in a number of spheres, a movement accessible to companies both large and small.