A Corporate Art Framework

Consultant sets high standard of cultural responsibility for collectors

SAY the words ``corporate art,'' and what comes to mind?

Seascapes, duck prints, bland abstractions? Think again.

``It's not decoration. It's education,'' says fine-arts consultant Marjory Jacobson. ``It's visual education. It's teaching.''

Ms. Jacobson has been developing and advising art programs for businesses for more than 20 years. In her eyes, the idea of corporate art goes far beyond Monet prints hung on walls or funky plant stands in the lobby. ``It's supporting your culture, supporting society, supporting the times you live in.''

To showcase ``what is possible'' when business and art come together, Jacobson traveled to 30 cities in eight countries to interview innovative patrons of contemporary art. She then wrote ``Art for Work: The New Renaissance in Corporate Collecting,'' (Harvard Business School Press, 224 pp., $60). The book features 40 international corporate-art collections and art programs.

In a Monitor interview, Jacobson talked about the status of corporate art in the United States, the importance of contemporary art in society, and what motivates businesses to support the visual art of our era.

First of all, corporate art is not about philanthropy, Jacobson says, because philanthropy implies charity. Corporate art has to do with cultural responsibility; it's patronage. She recalls asking a businessman in Europe why he was a dedicated patron of art, and he replied, ``It's culture!'' - as if she had asked a silly question. By contrast, she says, in Japan corporate art has more to do with investment. Generally speaking, art is collected there as a commodity to borrow against.

``In America, traditionally, the whole idea for corporations to get involved in this was to set themselves apart, to be better than the guy next door,'' Jacobson explains. They would think: ``Maybe my product is just like yours, but we also give to the arts, and we have this wonderful office, we have this competitive edge because we're a little bit nicer looking or we have this aura of culture about us.''

Jacobson, who served as director of the Hayden Gallery at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before starting her own consulting business, acknowledges that corporate and art worlds might seem an unlikely match. They tend to be suspicious of one another. But for corporate art to succeed, prejudices must fall away, she says.

``In order for there to be a positive outcome or growth or evolution of this phenomenon to the next plateau - whatever it is -

there needs to be a healthy respect both ways. All artists can't say, `I'll never work for a corporation because they're all out for one thing and that's money.' And businesses can't say, `Oh these artists, they're kooks; they're going to do something to undermine my business, and I'm not going to have anything to do with them. I'm going to play it safe.' There has to be an element of mutual respect.''

The 1980s were a kind of pinnacle in corporate- art collecting in America, Jacobson notes. But it wasn't necessarily a good thing. ``Corporate art collecting had a very bad name for the most part because it was seen as ... conspicuous consumption,'' Jacobson says.

``Art was considered something that you just acquired for your own aggrandizement. It was the glitz and the glamor, and that had very little to do with what art is all about, which is ideas, visual ideas. They really were not collectors of art, they were collectors of things.''

Of course, she adds, there has always been a group of intelligent collectors who were interested in the process and the product and what it meant, in a much wider framework.

In today's recession, the climate is different.

Instead of calling it collecting, it's becoming programming works of art. There are ``good buys,'' especially if you're supporting young artists, Jacobson says. Sometimes it's a matter of diverting money from one place to another. ``You have to have the interest and the passion and the caring.... I wouldn't advocate it for everyone.''

So how can businesses benefit from visual-arts programming?

Jacobson says the companies she surveyed had much in common: They used the arts in a professional way to further their business goals, either directly or indirectly. Also, they were all involved with contemporary expression and had an uncommon sense of quality. Contemporary expression is important, Jacobson points out, because it supports art of these times. It's not sponsoring an exhibit through a museum or collecting Rembrandt prints, it's directly supporting art with an enlightened self-interest. ``All aspects of contemporary culture are very much a part of who we are,'' she notes.

One of the reasons people are so apprehensive about contemporary art, Jacobson says, is that people in our society never had any basic education - that art is about ideas, not just about ``it's red, it's blue, it's yellow,'' she says.

``Because today's art and artists are getting more involved with the meaning of being in the world, they're getting involved with the issues that concern us all, like the environment, like AIDS, and a lot of those things aren't pretty. It's a different kind of aesthetics.

``People don't want to look at that stuff, but it's visual, you have to confront it.... You have all this jarring expression. There doesn't seem to be a place for the sublime. I think that's a big problem, [and the reason] why people reject the art of their times.

``One of the most important lessons we can learn ... is to look at the dissonance and see the positive things in it.''

Jacobson hopes to gather business people, artists, museum directors, architects, and others to develop new places and new audiences for public art. ``That's where corporations' main contribution is going to be in the future,'' she says.

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