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Corporations, Once Happy Buyers of Art, Are Now Happy If They Can Get Rid of It

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A much happier subject than this is the joy of collecting art. The newspapers are full of record sale prices for artworks at auction, and art fairs promote their A-list dealers, artists and buyers. But what if your aim is getting rid of art? I'm not talking about museum "deaccessioning" of certain pieces in a permanent collection, with the aim of using the proceeds of a sale to acquire more art, or even about estate sales. I mean getting rid of it. Lehman Brothers, the financial services firm that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008, had that problem. Its 3,500-piece art collection, with works by such bankable artists as Jasper Johns and Andreas Gurky, looked good on the walls, but the offices were emptied and a bankruptcy court was demanding that all remaining assets be monetized.
During the 1960s, '70s and '80s, major corporations were highly active in the art market, building significant contemporary art collections, but those days have long passed.
Companies in trouble sell whatever can raise them money, and art collections are but one more asset. Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm brought down by the Enron scandal, for instance, turned two floors of its Chicago offices into a gallery showroom in 2002, selling more than 2,000 artworks over a five-day period. In 2006, the New York futures broker Refco Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection the previous year while under investigation for hiding $430 million in debt, sold 321 photographs for $9.7 million at Christie's auction house over a three-day period.
"The major sales of corporate art collections that I've been involved with have been distressed situations," said Joshua Holdeman, senior vice president at Christie's, who in 2003 had also helped both Enron and Seagram sell artworks from their collections when he worked at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg. At other times, corporate consignors of art at the auction houses are not identified out of fear that the sale "may be seen as a sign of distress," he said. "In the grand scale, of course, no one's art collection will get it out of trouble."
Corporations get rid of their art collections for other reasons than doom and gloom, of course. Mergers and acquisitions bring in new leadership that simply doesn't want the old stuff around. Or yesterday's art doesn't work in today's new building.
Take Unilever. In 1982, the company had bought a 92-work collection of black-and-white museum-quality photographs for its then-new headquarters on Chicago's Wells Street. Assembled quickly by an art consultant, the collection included such renowned photographers as Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, André Kertesz, Irving Penn and Alfred Stieglitz.
By 2003, however, the company was ready to move again to a somewhat smaller building on North Michigan Avenue, and so it was time for the art to go. "The old space was classical and elegant, with muted colors, and the black-and-white photographs worked," said Jessica Jolly, facilities manager at Unilever. "The new building had a different design idea, and people wanted bright colors." In fact, they didn't want art at all but large-scale photographs of the company's products splashed about on the walls. "We show images of Suave shampoo, Ragu bottles, tea packages -- images employees can connect to."
To Unilever's credit, the company held a public sale of the 92 photographs, raising $400,000 that was donated in full to the Marwen Foundation, which provides free art classes to Chicago's disadvantaged youngsters in grades six through 12.
More recently, Altria, which had changed its name from Philip Morris Cos. in 2003, disposed of half of its 700-piece art collection when it relocated its headquarters to Richmond, Va., from New York City's Park Avenue last March. "Our Richmond headquarters now features a lot of Virginia artists," a spokesman said. The move ended the company's 25-year-long relationship as a branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art, but its parting gift to the city was almost 200 works from its collection (featuring pieces by Jennifer Bartlett, Romare Bearden, Philip Guston, Betty Saar and Andy Warhol) to 10 institutions, including the Whitney, the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio.
Once proud buyers of A-list art, corporations are taking a second look at collections. Amid the corporate downfalls and takeovers, we are seeing signs that the heyday of corporate art collecting is over, replaced increasingly by budget-priced decoration.
"The 1980s was the high point in corporate art collecting, but the crash at the end of the '80s started the process of killing it off," said David Galenson, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and the author of the 2006 book "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity." "Company executives found out that the art market could be a very volatile thing that they didn't want to be part of."
Other factors contributed as well. The prices for top-flight art have risen to astronomical levels, draining corporate resources, and the type of art that is expected to appreciate in value "costs money to maintain, in terms of storage and climate control and state-of-the-art facilities in which to display it," said Mary Lanier, former director of the Chase Manhattan Bank art collection and now a private corporate art adviser. Shareholders and board directors have less and less tolerance for major art expenditures, according to Princeton University economist Orley Ashenfelter, who noted that "firms, especially when the economy starts to sour, recognize their need to stick to their core business." The result has been a 20-year-long disposal of one corporate art collection after another.
The question of what to do with no-longer-wanted company artwork received one answer from the New York-based Business Committee for the Arts, which in 2006 established the From Workplaces to Public Spaces program. In its first two years, the program has placed about 1,000 artworks deaccessioned by Manhattan-based businesses in 16 hospitals, schools and cultural organizations in the Greater New York area. Among the corporations that have donated posters and original artwork to the From Workplaces program are Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and Pfizer, and the cumulative value of this art is in excess of $275,000. Among the recipients are Medgar Evers College, Hospital Audiences Inc., P.S. 20, Tools for Schools Inc., the Henry Street Settlement and Bronx-Lebanon Special Care Center.
JP Morgan Chase also has made donations separate from the From Workplace program, including artworks to hospitals and the New York City Board of Education, brightening school hallways. So, too, has Xerox Corp., which gave away 221 framed prints to the Norwalk, Conn., public schools. After it moved into a new building four years ago, the Kansas City, Mo., law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon found its "older art didn't fit with the new building," donating almost 20 prints and paintings to Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, said Walter Cofer, partner in the law firm. Over the years, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, a Bronx, N.Y., retirement home, has received so many donations of artwork from law firms, banks and other corporations, as well as from individuals, that it is a member of the American Alliance of Museums.