Modern-day Medici: the growing world of corporate art sponsors

By , Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.

Historically, American business and art have had a shaky relationship at best. If they touched at all, it was on an individual basis, with business leaders like J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick assuming the role of art collectors, Solomon Guggenheim acting as patron of a particular art movement, or John D. Rockefeller Jr. helping to finance and found various art institutions.

The idea that business itself - that corporations, banks, manufacturers, or investment institutions - should help support or sponsor art would have seemed preposterous only three short decades ago.

It no longer is, thanks to a few pioneering individuals - and to a growing public and corporate awareness that art needs all the help it can get if it is to provide society what it alone can give. The business community has responded in many practical ways, from outright purchase and commissioning of art from artists to large-scale funding of public art projects and museum exhibitions.

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Chase Manhattan Bank, for instance, began building an art collection in 1959 that now includes over 8,000 paintings, sculptures, watercolors, drawings, prints, photographs, and craft items. These were chosen with great care by experts, and they now constitute one of the best collections of recent art in existence. To ensure its importance and relevance, the collection is continually updated and expanded. Best of all, it is shared with the entire community: Some works are lent at various times to museum exhibitions, and others hang in the bank's numerous branch offices.

The idea that corporations and other large business establishments would do well to buy art caught on quickly. By the late 1960s, probably as much good, major contemporary art was going into corporate as into private collections. Even relatively small companies found it advantageous to their public image to build art collections - if not of major proportions, then certainly large enough to cover the office walls with good, up-to-date paintings and prints. In fact, there are those who claim that the recent boom in large, colorful, original prints is due to a considerable extent to the fact that many smaller corporations could not or would not invest in more expensive paintings.

Be that as it may, business and art began to join forces, even to the extent of spawning a new profession: the corporate art adviser and buyer. These individuals tend to be young, with at least some art or gallery experience if not doctoral degrees in art history, and they often have considerable clout in the art world. They are responsible for the shaping of some of today's best corporate art collections. Their purchases are of particular importance because they frequently choose work of promising, relatively unknown artists, helping them and their galleries to survive.

Corporate art advisers are found almost exclusively in our largest cities and generally have very specific functions. That, however, is certainly not true of the growing number of men and women assigned by companies of all sizes throughout the United States to serve as liaison officers in their towns or cities. Their responsibility is to determine what their employers can do to improve the cultural life of their community. In art, that can mean sponsoring a local exhibition, inviting leading art professionals from an art center to speak or to lead panel discussions, or even planning the construction of a local museum. These company employees devote significant portions of their working days to informing business leaders on ways in which they can best support the arts.

Large corporations, on the other hand, learn quickly what the arts want of them. Requests for funding come in at a steady rate and demand careful screening to guarantee maximum value for money spent. Now that federal and state spending for the arts has been restricted, it is almost impossible to mount a major museum exhibition without corporate help. Increasingly, corporations and foundations are joining forces with smaller, local companies to help sponsor a museum show. The contribution of each may only be moderate, but it's enough to get the show going - while allowing important funding to be spread over a wider field.

In addition to such support, corporations are increasingly involved in commissioning art. This form of patronage may not be as recent as corporate collecting, but it is growing rapidly nevertheless - most specifically in areas where commissions are awarded on a competitive basis. Murals, tapestries, sculptures, panels especially designed for elevators, even experimental environmental pieces, are beginning to grace an increasing number of our corporate buildings - or are presented by businessmen to public structures.

It might startle J. P. Morgan a bit if he could see all this going on. But in the long run he would probably recognize it as representing a good business attitude.

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