Thursday, June 11, 2009

For Artist to Read -Corporate Art Collections

By Ilana Stanger, Guest Writer

Most savvy artists learn the gallery-application rote fairly quickly: take professional slides, research galleries, connect your slides to a gallery. Less known is how you might get your work in a corporate art collection. How can your photograph, or painting, or sculpture, be the one well dressed employees will pass on the way to the water cooler?

Some corporations are very serious about their art collections and employ in-house curators. These include JPMorganChase, Pfizer, The Progressive Corporation, UBS PaineWebber, Safeco, Bank of America, and Microsoft. Very, very few corporations do this: one corporate art consultant I spoke with estimated that, of the Fortune 500 companies, less than 10% employed in-house curators. Those that do usually have a CEO that is passionate about art: at Chase, David Rockefeller committed himself to building a corporate art collection, which today stands at over 20,000 works in 350 locations.

Those companies that do not have in-house curators hire art consultants. For some it is simply a matter of filling up space: as Candace Worth, an independent art consultant, explained, "It's the wall décor angle, not the fine art angle." In these cases, the curator will usually handle every step of the acquisition process, from picking a theme to hanging the works. Often the themes will be regional, which means that you'll have an advantage if you submit your slides to local corporations. Worth selected abstract work by California artists for an insurance company in California and Northeastern landscapes for an office space in Long Island.

Other corporate collections not only rival but even crossover into museum shows. UBS Paine Webber provides space for non-profit galleries within their building; Chase's collection was on view at the Queens Museum of Art from the winter-spring 2001. In some cases, museums and corporations are intertwined to the point of inbreeding: Ronald Lauder, the CEO of Estée Lauder, is a well-known collector and the Chairman of the Museum of Modern Art; his son Leonard Lauder is the Chairman of the Whitney. Likewise, Peter B. Lewis, Chairman, CEO, and President of The Progressive Corporation, is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Clearly, getting your work seen by one of these museum-connected CEOs is no small shakes.

Nonetheless, though corporate collections may rival some museums — and certainly many galleries — in terms of prestige, they are generally considered a reflection of, rather than an influence on, the art market. I asked Debbie Kuo, who consults for Estée Lauder among other clients, whether the buying patterns of corporations influence the direction of the art world. Kuo was emphatic in her answer: "People in corporations don't really look at the art, so it doesn't create a trend. It doesn't have relevance."

What kind of art do corporations like? If you guessed non-offensive, you're right. Ingrid Fox, the in-house curator at Pfizer, was asked by Gabrielzine.com whether she was interested in anything politically orientated or risqué. Her response: "We don't touch it. This is not a free expression environment. This is a private business. American business generally doesn't support highly controversial work. Public institutions can. We don't touch religion, we don't touch nudity, we don't touch gun issues. We just don't."

Then there are the more practical considerations. Michael Klein, the chief curator at Microsoft, pointed out that, given the amount of catered meetings going on each day at Microsoft and the fact that corporations, unlike museums, do not have guards protecting the art, "We need to ensure that art and food can live side by side." To that end, he purchases a majority of framed works for the collection. However, though he echoes Fox's views that the art shouldn't offend, he is eager that it provokes. "The work isn't easy," Klein said, "there's work people are passionate for or against, which shows the collection works. We want discussions. If it just sits on the wall and no one notices it then it's wallpaper, not art."

How important is prestige in the corporate art game? Corporations are usually more than willing to invest in emerging artists — they are lighter on the wallet, and it's a nice image booster. Betty Levin, who founded Corporate Art Directions in 1978, told Gabrielzine that, while she provides bios on each artist, very few CEOs bother to read them. Likewise, Klein, who prides himself on having bought Cindy Sherman's work when each photograph cost just $50, said that while he's not looking for prestige, he does consider an artist's career: "You just try to find a kind of passion, seriousness, commitment."

Alright then, you've got the passion and the commitment — now what? The rule of thumb is that corporate consultants are willing to look at unsolicited slides, but in-house curators are not. Think of this as the difference between submitting your portfolio to a gallery director versus a museum curator. Klein ignores all unsolicited submissions, relying instead, as do all "the good ones," on a network of gallery owners and art dealers. If he likes someone's work he'll stop by his or her studio, but, as Klein put it, "part of the pleasure of my job is the hunt." So if you're interested in seeing your work happily installed at one of the Microsoft "campuses," you'll just have to sit tight and pray for hunting season to begin soon.

Alternatively, you can open your local yellow pages and contact a few art consultants. You're best off contacting someone who already represents work similar to yours — ask around at galleries and art fairs for recommendations. As always, the more research you do, the more hassle, not to mention money, you will save yourself.

One question remains: is it "selling out" to pray for some corporate behemoth to showcase your art? While every artist must decide for herself whether or not she's comfortable selling her work to a particular person or venue, the current increase in corporate collections fits quite neatly in the classic art patronage model. Artists have always depended on wealthy patrons — be they the church, the government, or important individuals — to commission their work. The church commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Chase commissioned Sam Francis to paint a wall in their Park Avenue bank. It doesn't take too much stretching to envision corporations and banks as the temples of the ultimate American religion — moneymaking.

Plus, who can deny the thrill — and necessity — of selling your work. When it comes to that, as the old song asks, "Who could ask for anything more?"

This article was originally created for TheArtBiz.com. It appears on NYFA Interactive courtesy of the Abigail Rebecca Cohen Library.

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