Why do banks buy art and will they continue to? BBC podcast

ART PATRONS BANK COLLECTORS 

How has the 500-year-old tradition of art patronage by banks changed, particularly after the events of 2008? Why do banks collect art? Will they continue to collect after the Financial Crisis and if they do will their reasons for collecting change? Razia Iqbal asks art advisors and staff of banks including Deutsche Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland in a Wise Buddha production made for BBC Radio 4. 

Turning the World Upside Down Anish Kapoor

Anish Kapoor, Turning the World Upside Down III, Deutsche Bank Collection

Art has been bought by banks for all kinds of reasons over the centuries. In the Middle Ages art patronage helped banking families wash away the sin of usury and gain social status.  In more recent times art was bought to decorate boardrooms and for investment. Pre-recession banks came full circle and art collections were actively used for image management again. The events of 2008 have now created a double pull for banks with art collections: should they sell which would help their image of prudent fiscal management or should they keep and share their collections with the public who now own many of them.  Iqbal’s programme hints at intriguing echos: there may no longer be a need to atone for Christian guilt but corporate guilt is perhaps another matter. The podcast is no longer accessible but here are some snippets. 

Bank collectors buying wider range of media 

Alex Heath, Managing Director of Independent Art Consultants which sources art for Barclays Bank amongst others says that the type of works which banks are interested in buying have changed in the recent past. “It is now less about straight painting and prints” and more about bringing “variety into the workplace”‘ with other media. 

Art now part of marketing mix 

In the past many banks bought works for decorating public spaces and board room he explains and over time the pieces accumulated into collections. More recently though he says that art is used consciously as part of the marketing mix. He describes how, in his work with clients, the marketing department or agency is his first port of call where he will ask “‘What do you want to say about the bank?” and from there he will generate art ideas which will complement the marketing message. 

Deutsche Bank recognised by peers 

Asked if he thinks that banks are cautious in their purchasing decisions, favouring traditional over contemporary works, he explains that there are banks which are taking leading positions as collectors of contemporary art and particularly singles out Deutsche Bank as “‘doing very well” at this. 

Art for staff, art to stimulate intellectual curiosity 

Alistair Hicks adviser to Deutsche Bank, which has a collection of over 56,00o pieces, shows Iqbal some of the works in the Deutsche Bank lobby, corridors and board rooms and explains the bank does not buy for investment.  Deutsche Bank’s primary purpose in buying art which began in the 1970s as an initiative called “Art in the Workplace” is to stimulate the intellect of its staff. “A good banker has to be curious about what is going on in the world and artists play a leading role in expressing current ideas”. 

In the lobby an early spot painting by Damien Hirst is reflected in an Anish Kapoor sculpture called “‘Turning the World Upside Down”‘. Iqbal is invited by Hicks to come around and inside the “almost spiritual” sculpture to experience its echo effect. Artwork is so intimately integrated into the environment of the office that boardroom are named after artists and Kapoor’s sculpture, affectionately known as ‘The Silver Ball’, has been adopted as a meeting point “We are in the Freud room. Meet you at the Silver Ball in 5”.

Art atones for sin 

Banks have traditionally been patrons of the arts with the first significant example occurring in Italy in the 1300’s when a banker commissioned a chapel containing religious artworks to atone for the sins of the family who had gained their wealth as bankers at a time when money-lending with interest was regarded as sinful by Chrisitians. 

Art for social status 

Iqbal explains that the Medicis in the fifteenth century, developed the concept of patronage considerably but used art not to atone for the family’s sins but rather to elevate its status. Artworks funded by gains from the prosperous Medici bank became a means to help the family gain public prominence, access and power and eventually noble status. 

What will banks do with art collections after the Financial Crisis? 

In an interview with the management of the Royal Bank of Scotland which since the Financial Crisis 2008, is now almost entirely public-owned, Iqbal learns about their strategy for the Barclays art collection going forward.  

Acknowledging that the trust of the public has been lost and taxpayer money needs to be refunded, the art collection strategy of RBS comprises three parts: art of historical importance will be retained, loaned out and made accessible to the public, some art will be retained for decorative purposes and the strategy towards the remaining part of the collection is to become “net sellers”. 

Though the reasons why banks buy art may change over time, Iqbal points out that banks’ tradition of collecting art stretches back over 500 years so probably won’t change any time soon. Do you agree? Leave your thoughts below. 

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