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Corporate art collections have been expanding access to art and creating new opportunities for artists for more than 500 years. Francesca Giurato, AXA XL’s Underwriting Manager Art, Specie and Bloodstock, has the details. 

The first corporate art collection was created in 1472, by Siena’s family-owned Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. At that time, collecting art was a pursuit for the elite who acquired—or commissioned—works they believed would reflect, and presumably also elevate, their status and prestige. 

Since then, companies have continued to collect art, but the nature of their collections as well as their underlying purposes for acquiring art have evolved considerably. Today, corporate art collections figure in both corporate social responsibility strategies and employee wellness programmes. According to Chiara Paolino, Lecturer of Organization Theory at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano, who has researched Italian corporate art collections, “Far from being just a passion and branding-based investment, corporate collections are now widely viewed as an enhancement to the quality of the workplace environment — one that can directly benefit a company’s social and economic health”. 

Moreover, corporate art collections and their buyers now are a major force in the global art market, and that’s benefitted all corners of the artworld ecosystem; working artists, dealers, consultants, appraisers, restorers, and, yes, insurance underwriters, have all profited from companies’ desire to “(enhance) the quality of the workplace environment”. 

Different objectives and approaches 
Commentators generally credit David Rockefeller for creating the rationale and purpose underpinning corporate art collections in the modern era. He was a sophisticated buyer with a keen eye who believed that employees and customers also should be able to experience and enjoy art while going about their daily lives; art shouldn’t be relegated just to museums or the homes of wealthy patrons like himself. After he initiated a programme of art acquisition in the 1950s at a major American bank, many other large multinational corporations followed suit. 

That practice continues today, albeit with varying approaches and rationales. Some companies, for instance, simply allocate a portion of their operating budgets to art, and, oftentimes, hire a consultant to decide what to buy and where to display different pieces. For these companies, the idea usually is to adorn what otherwise would be a rather drab workplace. 

At the other end of the continuum are companies with hefty budgets and dedicated art buyers who are regulars on the “circuit” of exhibitions, auctions and fairs in pursuit of appealing works. Many of these companies also will commission pieces directly from an artist. The motivations of these companies tend to be more complex and nuanced. For some, the art collections are seen as an important element in their corporate identity and branding. For others, helping to support and sustain local artists is a principal objective. 

More recently, leading tech companies have also started to build their own corporate collections, often with an innovative twist. A leading social media company, for instance, founded an artist-in-residence programme, commissioning local artists to collaborate with its employees in designing and creating artwork for its different offices. Similarly, another important Silicon Valley firm often commissions local artists to create one-of-a-kind murals for its offices around the world, while employees are also encouraged to vote on potential new art acquisitions and installations.

Although, as noted, corporate art buyers have different approaches to buying art, a noteworthy trend is investment in pieces by living artists. According to one of the curators for a longstanding corporate collection, for example, an important priority is “collecting in a way that benefits artists rather than dealers and auction houses”. This approach means that modern and contemporary artists are overwhelmingly represented in many corporate art collections. The reasons for this are of course not purely altruistic on the part of art-collecting companies, and likely include considerations such as aesthetics, cost, and the ability to commission and customize artworks from living artists. 

Regardless, the outcome for living artists whose work is acquired by corporations is the same. According to research into Dutch corporate art collections by the University of Amsterdam’s School for Cultural Analysis, “Many corporate collections, from multinationals to non-profit organizations, showcase ‘avant garde’ art produced by artists just entering the art market, increasing these artists’ chances to be canonized and recognized as part of Dutch cultural heritage”. The University’s research also found that corporate art collections contribute up to 20 percent of the demand for contemporary art in the Netherlands. Chiara Paolino confirms the project’s findings, saying, “From an artist’s point of view, involvement with a company can lead to important external life and growth opportunities, since it offers them the freedom to explore art in a new context, which in turn may well deliver benefits in subsequent projects”. 

Not just for employees 
Corporate art collections can also benefit the art-consuming public. As part of their corporate social responsibility mandates, companies often make their collections available to the public, either temporarily, through dedicated museum exhibitions or loans of individual pieces to museums, or permanently, such as by donating artwork to hospitals. 

The UBS Art Collection, for example, often lends pieces it owns by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lucian Freud, and Roy Lichtenstein to museum exhibitions; in 2005, its collection also was the subject of a dedicated exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Similarly, a Turkish industrial conglomerate operates its offices as a museum on the weekends, inviting the public to view the artworks in its collection. The Louis Vuitton Foundation opened to the public in 2014; it has hundreds of artworks—all made in the past 120 years—belonging either to LVMH or to its chief executive Bernard Arnault. Finally, in 2019, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena made its previously highly secretive and inaccessible collection available for public viewing on a regular basis. 

Since the 1950s when David Rockefeller created the template that still largely applies today, corporate art collections and their buyers have played an increasingly important role in launching the careers of emerging artists and in setting aesthetic trends. Lately, that has been reflected by an increasing appreciation for the vital role art and the artistic community play in civil society, driven in part by the growing influence of tech companies and their deep coffers. And while there is considerable uncertainty about how the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately will evolve, one possible “silver lining” will be an even greater commitment among corporations to support working artists. 

For its part, AXA XL is pleased to once again sponsor the AXA Art Prize in conjunction with the New York Academy of Art. Now in its third year, the AXA Art Prize is a juried art contest that celebrates and champions figurative art by emerging artists. (The 2018 and 2019 editions also featured a traveling exhibition which, unfortunately, has been shelved this year.) The Prize is open to undergraduate and graduate students majoring in studio art at a U.S. college or university; entries are limited to figurative paintings, drawings or prints. The 40 finalists have now been selected by the jury and the first and second place winners will be announced in September.  

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