Whereas corporate art collections were still a unique phenomonon in the 1960s and 70s, usually evolving from a social idea - the edification of the men and woman in the workplace - since the 1980s, collections have increasingly become instruments for adding colour to corporate identity. Banks, insurance corporations, chemical concerns and even hospitals have set about collecting art, so that they might use their collections to project a progressive and innovative image of themselves.
In the Netherlands, the business world has been collecting in force, with the high point being the 25,000 works that ING has brought together. The number of works of art in these collections is so large that companies have become important conservators of Dutch national heritage. Most companies take this stewardship extremely seriously: their curators inventory and catalogue their collections, consult with fellow curators and conservators on restoration and conservation, and where necessary, use professional depots to store works of art. This professionalization has had the side effect of there currently being more catalogues published of company collections than by the museums.
Since the late 1980s, companies have more frequently shown their collections beyond the walls of their own office buildings. Examples include the exhibition of the ABN AMRO collection at the Noord-Brabants Museum in Den Bosch in 2002, the exhibition of the Rabobank collection in the spring of 2005, under the title H X B X D, held at three museums in the Hague, and Brieven uit Arcadia/Letters from Arcadia, which in 2007 showed a selection from the SNS REAAL foundation at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. This summer, Caldic exhibited their extensive collection of artists’ books at De Fundatie in Zwolle. In addition, some corporate collections serve as art producers by commissioning artists to create new work. Although the frequency with which the PTT postal service did this in the past has not been assumed by any other company, when the occasion arises, artworks are commissioned by the University Medical centre in Leiden, DSM, Rabobank and the Bouwfonds, among others.
Arnold Witte, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam and editor of the book Bedrijfscollecties in Nederland, to be released in November by the Vereniging Bedrijfscollecties Nederland (VBCN), claims that the improved quality and proficiency of these collections means that companies have increasing influence in the art world ‘in the financial, institutional and artistic terrain’.2 So far, however, this potential strength has seldom been exploited to the fullest, which we see when we compare the collections amongst themselves. What characterizes these collections is not their uniqueness, but their interchangeability. Given the freedom of individual companies to engage and express their own insights in the waters of artistic production, one should not be blamed for expecting that by now, there would be considerable diversity separating the various collections, that each would have a face of its own. Nothing is farther from the truth, however.
Disregarding such exceptions as the ING collection, which has a distinctly figurative character, the photography collection of Randstad and the old masters in the collections of the Friesland Bank and Van Lanschot Bankiers, by far the majority of corporate collections look very much alike. The quality of the works assembled in the collections of ABN AMRO, the Amsterdam Medical Centre, AkzoNobel, Bouwfonds, the Nederlandse Bank, Fortis and the Rabobank does not mean that they do not look unmistakably alike. Their orientation is broad and focuses on contemporary Dutch artists, purchased primarily through Dutch galleries. It seems to be an unwritten rule that without a Dumas or a Zandvliet, a collection is not complete. Almost every collection also has a Corneille, Constant or Lucebert, as well as several works by Carel Visser, Jan Dibbets, René Daniels, Rob van Koningsbruggen and Peter Struycken. Representing the younger generation, one can always rely on Tom Claassen, Heringa/Van Kalsbeek, Inez van Lamsweerde, Bas Meerman, Aernout Mik, Maria Roosen and Berend Strik.
If companies truly want to support contemporary artists and enhance their image by way of there collections, they could better limit themselves to a number of established names and, far more than is now the case, focus on young artists. By following and continuing to purchase works by these artists, corporate collections would increase their engagement in the art world and distinguish themselves from their fellow collectors. Their collections would no longer have to be carried on the names of established artists, but the opposite would take place, with artists being pushed ahead by their corporate maecenas.
In many cases, the way these collections are handled is characterized by a certain vanity, with which the company profile is carefully guarded. The power of corporate collections, however, can only truly blossom when their proprietors develop a more enlightened perspective towards them. Collecting art must have the courage, the power of conviction to reach beyond one’s own collection. This can happen, for example, by organizing exhibitions with other corporate collectors or museums in which a shared theme is investigated and presented. Preferably, companies should leave the responsibility for the content of the selection for such exhibitions in the hands of independent, external curators, allowing the art alone to speak and not the corporate mission statement.
Last summer’s Wahlverwandtschaft exhibition in Heerenveen was a development in the right direction. With this exhibition, the initiators, Bouwfonds Art Foundation and the Belvédère Museum, set out to demonstrate the kindred spirit that can exist between museum and corporate collections, seeking the possibilities that such a collaboration can offer both parties.
An enlightened vision also implies long-term vision. AkzoNobel has demonstrated this with their resolution to incorporate an exhibition space in their new head office in Amsterdam, where exhibitions of not only their own collection can be organized, but also of works from museums and other company collections. There are other possibilities as well. In addition to the incidental commissioned work that we now see taking place, the companies – together or otherwise – could set up a production fund, such as the Siemens Art Program in Germany, to initiate and finance structural collaboration with the art world.
Hopefully, the forthcoming VBCN publication will provide inspiring ideas to stimulate more distinctive acquisition policies and develop a clear perspective of the future, so that corporate collectors can become the stimulators and the maecenas in the art world that they wish to be.
Eva Rovers is a doctoral candidate at University of Groningen’s Institute of Biography.
Translation: Mari Shields
- Chin-tao Wu, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention Since the 1980s, Verso, London/New York 2002, p. 251.
- Arnold Witte, ‘Professionalisering als paradoxale trend. Bedrijfscollecties in Nederland’, Boekman. Tijdschrift voor kunst, cultuur en beleid 20 (2008)76, p. 86. Jenny Barendregt, Arnold Witte et al, ed., Bedrijfscollecties in Nederland, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam 2009.