IN the high-flying 1980s, artists were frequently directed to market their work to corporations, which paid top dollar and found prestige in art collecting.
These days, some major companies that collected art are selling it. And those that are buying are doing so rather quietly, not wanting to advertise these purchases when they may be laying off employees. Corporate art advisers used to revel in their sought-after position. Now they tell artists, ''Don't call us, we'll call you.''
''We don't want to be inundated by artists' slides, especially when there is just not so much call for art,'' says Mary Anne Golen, president of the Association of Professional Art Advisers in Denver, and director of the US Federal Reserve's art collection.
Still, there are signs of renewal in the corporate art market.
Shirley Howarth, editor of the ''International Directory of Corporate Art Collections,'' says a survey by the publication found few companies said their art collections were ''completed.''
''Our survey has also found a respectable number of new collections, at law firms, hotels, private clubs, and manufacturing companies,'' Ms. Howarth adds. Another positive sign, she says, is that orders for the 1996 directory are up to 1990 levels. In the early '90s, downsizing at many large companies, and the generally slow economy, disproportionately affected the arts.
Among the trends that she and others spot:
The purchase of smaller and less expensive works, such as the work of regional artists rather than national stars.
An interest in mediums other than painting and sculpture, including ceramics, textiles, and photography.
Fewer acquisitions of entire collections by corporations and more works made to order.
''A number of our clients these days are commissioning work, specifying the size, colors, and subject matter,'' says Woody Rollins, principal owner of Boston Corporate Art in Boston.
He says that ''what companies are calling art collections now is different'' from the 1980s. The distinction between ''office decoration'' and an ''art collection'' has blurred, with some companies forgoing original art for reproductions in expensive frames.
''We try to convince them that original art creates a better business environment and will actually help their business,'' Mr. Rollins says.
''Investment purchases are clearly down, but the decoration market is very alive, and we're doing fabulously there,'' says Barry Cohen, owner of Soho Editions, a print publisher in Owings Mills, Md. Building an art collection, he explains, ''is a sore subject at companies where employees are being laid off and shareholders are getting edgy about what the company is doing with its money.''
Indeed, times remain lean for many artists who in the 1980s looked to the corporate art market as a means of supporting themselves. Six years ago, eight people were employed full-time to buy for and manage the 13,000-piece art collection of Prudential Insurance Company of America. Now there are two.
''We used to buy art to fill entire buildings,'' says Helene Zucker Seeman, director of the collection, ''but now I may have just a floor or only an executive office to fill, and there is still a lot of artwork in storage.'' She says that in the past she used to look at any piece of art she came upon as a potential purchase. But ''that thinking has changed, and now I need to have a specific setting for anything I might want to buy.''
A number of corporate art advisers either left the field or turned their attention to private individuals who collect. Six years ago, Rosemary Cronin and her partner, Candy Ellis, ran Corporate Curators, a Hartford, Conn., art-consulting firm. They dissolved the company because ''most of the corporations in this area stopped buying art,'' Ms. Cronin says. ''They began laying off employees and moving to smaller offices. And then there were all these mergers, where you never know who's in charge or where the company is now headquartered, and the art collection is the last thing on anyone's mind.''