Art collections at banks are becoming a big business

Timothy Barber
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YESTERDAY it was announced that Asia’s biggest art fair, the Hong Kong-based Art HK, is to be sponsored for the next five years by Deutsche Bank. The fair’s previous sponsor, Lehman Brothers, had its art collection auctioned off earlier this month to the tune of $1.35m, including works by Pop Art superstars Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Indiana.

Meanwhile, Royal Bank of Scotland last month agreed to put on display works from its own collection, after criticism that it was denying public access to one of the largest private collections of British art. It includes works by artists such as David Hockney, LS Lowry and Joshua Reynolds.

Banks often spend serious amounts of money on art collections. But why? Colin Tweedy, chief executive of Arts & Business, the charity that facilitates the involvement of the corporate world in the arts, says that at its simplest, the answer is the same as with any other banking activity – it helps them make money.

Supporting art, whether by maintaining collections, sponsoring art events or funding public and community art, aligns the bank with a world that is seen to have just the right mix of prestige, glamour and intellectual merit, which in turn attracts the right sort of people.

“It’s about reaching key audiences, and associating themselves with the very best of what’s going on,” says Tweedy. “In the past it might have been sponsoring film premieres or charity galas, but art became the new sexy kid on the block, and it’s stayed there.”

Exhibitions and art fairs provide a suitably elite atmosphere for entertaining clients, and cutting edge contemporary art makes for a more impressive business space. Art’s associations with social enrichment also make it a favourable place for banks to focus their corporate social responsibility activities, through involvement in educational programmes and community schemes. Deutsche Bank, for instance, has backed the Ghost Forest public art installation that has transformed Trafalgar Square this week. The work, by artist Angela Palmer, is intended to highlight climate change – a positive cause for a bank to be associated with. Dutch bank ING has sponsored an annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries for the past 11 years in conjunction with Discerning Eye, an educational charity supporting aspiring artists. The exhibition, which is currently running, puts work by new artists alongside established names, with pieces selected both by open submission and by invitation.

“We like to be shown to be living our values,” says Gerlach Jacobs, ING UK’s chief executive. “This charity offers real opportunity to people who want to establish themselves as artists, and that’s our motivation for supporting it.”

Jacobs says backing the exhibition also falls in line with ING’s wider interest in art. The company supports Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, is a major collector of contemporary Dutch art, and its UK division hosts a significant collection of British drawing and print works. Much of the thousand-strong collection, which includes pictures by Lowry and Stanley Spencer, is permanently exhibited in the company’s London offices, and Jacobs says it has a clear benefit for people working there.

“The employees really identify with it. Because the bank has something of real value that we are looking after, it heightens interest in the company for them and for clients, and it feeds into the atmosphere we create.”

ING’s collection is dwarfed by those of many other banks. Deutsche Bank, for instance, holds perhaps the largest collection in the world of contemporary print and drawing works, which are distributed around its offices globally, as well as loaned to museums and exhibitions. UBS, meanwhile, owns 30,000 works of post-1950s art. Ben Clark, head of corporate art collections in Europe for auctioneers Christie’s, says the art market boom has caused companies to take their art collections much more seriously.

“Often big international corporates form their collections almost by default, through the M&A process, and it can be a real mishmash,” he says. “There’s definitely been a move in the last five years for them to be much more aware of what they have and why they have it, and to look after these collections in a more responsible way.”

With museums and art institutions struggling for funds, you can bet your bottom dollar that even more works of art are going to find their way into banks’ collections.

The ING Discerning Eye exhibition is on display until Sunday at Mall Galleries, The Mall, SW1. For more information visit

While many corporations have invested in art to varying degrees for generations, the activity was given a defining boost in 1959 by legendary philanthropist and art enthusiast, David Rockefeller. His bank, Chase Manhattan, began buying art according to guidelines he laid down, which included keeping to museum standards of stewardship and conservation. Now the JPMorgan Chase collection, it numbers over 30,000 works of modern art, and continues to grow.

Contemporary and modern art also makes up the two other biggest corporate collections, built up by Deutsche Bank and UBS. The former consists of 50,000 print and drawing works, as well as some sculptural pieces. The UBS collection numbers 40,000 works made during the last 50 years, with artists including Andy Warhol, Gilbert & George and Cy Twombly represented.

Now due to get a public airing, RBS’s collection consists of 2,200 British works, ranging from David Hockney to 18th century painter Joshua Reynolds. The Fleming Collection, the finest collection of Scottish colourists, was built up by Flemings bank before it was sold in 2000. The collection remained in a separate foundation, and is now open to public view in Mayfair.