Anyone who visits Deutsche Bank’s London headquarters at Winchester House can see instantly how much corporate taste in art has changed in recent years. On the wall hangs a canvas by Damien Hirst of what look like hundreds of Smarties arranged in a geometric pattern. In front of that sits an Anish Kapoor sculpture strangely resembling a huge metal doughnut. There are no portraits of venerable company elders, or any oils of stags braving wind-swept Highland mountaintops. On the other hand, Gissings, sponsors of the Slade School of Art end of year show, does have an upside down horse on its lobby wall.
Financial institutions and other companies have been shifting their preferences towards contemporary works for well over a decade, but art experts have noticed the trend intensifying in the past few years. In fact, buying modern art has become so de rigueur that it is bordering on being a new orthodoxy. “It is difficult for companies not to buy contemporary art today if they want to be seen as creative, exciting businesses,” says Alistair Hicks, art adviser to Deutsche Bank in London.
Susanna Beaumont, director of the commercial contemporary gallery doggerfisher in Edinburgh, which has sold works to Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS, agrees. “Businesses want to show not just that they have been established since the year dot, but that they are at the forefront of contemporary culture, too,” she says. “Businesspeople and their clients are younger and more diverse. Their art must reflect that.”
Cat Newton-Groves, a curator who advises Unilever on its art collection, says: “Companies are taking more risks in their art selection because they are taking more risks in business.”
Contemporary art is also seen as more inspirational. “Our collection is not just there for decoration. Artists look at the world afresh,” says Hicks. “We aren’t relying on them for ideas, but it does help if you are surrounded by intellectually stimulating images.”
There are also practical reasons for adopting a modern approach to art selection. Contemporary works suit newer buildings, where glass-fronted, open design benefits from the bright colours which dominate the aesthetic sensibilities of today’s artists.
Another reason is that it is good public relations to patronise younger artists, and the fact that newer names command much smaller fees does not go unnoticed, either. “We want to use our money wisely,” says Frank McGarry, business development manager for Royal Bank of Scotland, who has been on a buying mission to decorate the bank’s brand new head office next to Edinburgh Airport.
However, financial considerations do not run to treating acquisitions as an investment portfolio. Both Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland insist they are not looking for a financial return when buying art.
Companies often consult staff on what they want on their walls. Employees tend to shun the more outlandish frontiers of contemporary art. There is usually little room for items from the ‘yes, but is it art?’ school of thought. “We don’t want the cleaners to accidentally throw away the latest corporate acquisition,” says Beaumont.
That said, it would be wrong to characterise tastes as conservative. Deutsche Bank has 3,000 works on its walls at Winchester House alone and Hicks says he is constantly surprised by the selections employees make. “Tastes have unquestionably become less conformist,’ he says.
Deutsche Bank is generally regarded as the world leader in contemporary corporate art. Its collection of post-1960s works on paper, which dominates a total catalogue of 50,000 items, is considered just about the finest anywhere. The catalogue is looked after by 10 staff in Frankfurt and another three in London.
It would seem, then, that beauty and the beasts who control the purse-strings can rub along together after all.