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Hung, Drawn & Corporate

Andrew Solomon meets the people who advise corporations what to buy, and wonders if a canvas of puce and purple swirls “in reception” represents cultural concern or a horrifying development in the art market.

Andrew Hutchinson and Amanda Basker of Art for Offices, and Hugo Grenville. Photo by Mark Tillie for Harpers & Queen.

Andrew Hutchinson (left) and Amanda Basker of Art for Offices, and Hugo Grenville (right). Photo by Mark Tillie for Harpers & Queen.

“The painting,” said the vice-president of the British subsidiary of one of the world’s largest technological corporations, “is an important work by an artist whose reputation is just beginning to extend outside Manchester and whose formal use of space…” His voice suddenly trailed off, and he blushed slightly. He turned to the smiling young woman next to him and said, apologetically, “Well, it’s really Vanessa here who explained all this to me, so I suppose I might as well let her explain to you.” We were standing in the new London headquarters of the corporation, which were hung with quite wonderful pieces of contemporary art, all well-lit, well-framed, and well-hung. Vanessa, young and elegant and authoritative, had put together the collection for the corporation, working closely with the vice-president, tactfully negotiating his decisions and giving him an abbreviated history of contemporary art as she saw it. And though he deferred to her when we were all standing together, even blushed, he was clearly going through a speech he had rehearsed to himself for weeks. Tomorrow, the building would open and he would go through with his executive cohorts and he would say “and whose formal use of space,” and he would not trail off, and the executive cohorts would recognise their wisdom in appointing him to the art committee in the first place. “He really knows his stuff,” they would say to one another as they gazed, bemused, at the vaginal swirls in puce and mauve on the walls of the executive dining room.

As for Vanessa, she would by that time be off doing another office somewhere with another vice-president. There are currently about 85 firms claiming to do what Vanessa does, and more Corporate Art Advisers are setting up shop every day. CAAs are usually called in either to work with the architects who are designing new working areas for a company or to work in spaces that are recently completed. Some companies claim that they take on CAAs to improve the quality of life for their employees, and such companies frequently hang works in the more private areas of their office buildings. More often, companies buy art to project a corporate image of wealth, power, influence and cultural involvement. Such companies tend to concentrate their art collections in fairly public spaces.

CAA firms, surprisingly enough, vary enormously in character. Some seem to have been founded by people in the art world who, appalled by the choices corporations make when left to their own devices, have stepped in to champion good work and to persuade the vide-presidents of the world not to subsidise rubbish. Others have been founded by business men who see an opportunity to exploit the wild ignorance of the corporate world, and who complement rather limited knowledge about art with rather a lot of knowledge about how companies buy and what they really want. Some CAA firms have associated galleries, with stables of artists whose work is likely to recur in their installations; others work independently, and are in the business of commissioning new work by an enormous range of artists.

All of them supervise the purchasing of art, and the incidental nuisances: framing, lighting, insurance, transport, warehousing, commissioning, packing and publication of catalogues. At the moment, they are all waiting to see how the tax advantages for companies who buy art may change, and they are waiting with bated breath to see whether the “per cent for Art” law, which would require that in any new building 1 per cent (or perhaps only 1/2 per cent) of the budget be spent on art, will be passed. The suspense is tight; the Arts Council has just appointed a steering committee to consider the question. Such a law already exists in France, Western Germany, Holland and Sweden, and in twenty-one states in the USA, and also in Edinburgh and in the London Borough of Lewisham.

Long & Ryle Art International in John Islip Street is the outgrowth of Sarah Long Art International, a gallery in Notting Hill; unlike most of the other CAA firms listed in this article, Long & Ryle is also a functioning gallery for individuals and collectors. Some would suggest that the two interests counterman one another, but the Hon. Sarah Long and Carolyn Ryle-Hodges disagree. “They run on parallel courses,” explains Sarah Long. “What is consistent throughout is our commitment to realising the richness of the artists’ work, some of which is too particular for the corporation, and some of which is too monumental for the individual.”

Sarah Long is slender and willowy and lovely, with blonde hair and a sudden illuminating smile; in an elegant pale pink dress she looks like part of the dream sequence from a Tchaikovsky ballet, and with her trademark King Charles spaniel Chloë usually clutched under her arm, she has none of the hard-nosed manner of the business woman. But beneath these frills lurk a steely will, a vast sum of information and a strong, particular taste. She and Carolyn Ryle-Hodges have very clear ideas about what constitutes good art, and they have contracts with a certain number of those they see as good artists; if you have your collection done by the two of them, those artists are sure to appear, though their work will be supplemented with work from outside. Their associated agent, Clare Stracey of Midlands Contemporary Art, works in Birmingham and puts together collections of art for companies in the Midlands by local artists, though she will purchase other work through Long & Ryle, who also purchase through her. Whichever of them you work with, your collection will have a look that is authoritative, appropriate and well-considered. You can relax into the comfort of their well-informed decisiveness and expertise.

Bridget Brown does not create a look. “I think,” she whispers humourously, “that for people instantly to associate a collection with my name would be like having a haircut people instantly associate with the hair-dresser who did it.” Soft-spoken and expensive in her manner, she has the greatest breadth of knowledge of any of the CAAs I met, and is conversant with the latest theoretical movements in Britain, in America, in France and elsewhere. She has done only a few projects, mostly on large budgets, and the art she has acquired for corporations is sometimes really great art. What is most impressive is her passion. “My role,” she says, “is to make it clear to these corporate committees why a given painting or sculpture is beautiful and important. I am in the business of teaching people to love things they might otherwise never have been able to love.” One gathers, from the range of art she has placed in the offices of major multinationals, that she must be good at that. She undertakes the radical task of leading the corporates into the fold of responsible buying of work that is often not immediately accessible. Dressed in quantities of white cashmere, a couture suit, and a wonderful black hat, she has the exclusivity of the intellect and the exclusivity of great style which permit her to pronounce with self-assurance on such subjects as beauty and love, which from anyone else would sound affected and banal in the corporate world.

Sarah Hodson’s The Corporate Arts specialises in corporate exhibitions. A corporation hires her to put together an exhibition to run in the company’s public spaces for six or eight weeks. The company holds private views and other functions during the exhibition and Sarah Hodson arranges not only the art but also the catering and champagne. These works are for sale and about 80 per cent are bought by employees of the company or by guests who come to the private views and other functions. They are usually priced between £300 and £5,000, but occasionally go slightly higher. Though obviously not major works of art, they are well chosen and attractive, and so contribute to the images of the sponsoring corporations.

They often conform to a theme that relates to the space in which they are shown: the Institute of Directors recently employed Sarah Hodson to stage a show of contemporary Zimbabwean art and with typical industry she became expert in the field almost at once. Sarah Hodson herself is terrifyingly business-like. She speaks at breakneck speed and with total cogency and she has every fact she needs at her fingertips. When I asked her why she thought a corporation would choose to work with her rather than with one of her competitors, she answered simply, “The people who employ me like to work with someone who is efficient, dependable, reliable, responsible and attractive.” And well they might.

Back row: Petronilla Silver, Carolyn Ryle-Hodges and Bridget Brown. Front row: Sarah Long, Clare Stracey and Sarah Hodson. Photo by Henry O'Neil for Harpers & Queen.

Back row, left to right: Petronilla Silver of The Contemporary Art Society, Carolyn Ryle-Hodges of Long & Ryle Art International, Bridget Brown. Front row: Sarah Long, Clare Stracey of Midlands Contemporary Art, and Sarah Hodson. Photo by Henry O’Neil for Harpers & Queen.

The Contemporary Art Society is a charity. It is involved in purchasing work for museums including the Tate, the V&A, and the British Museum, and subsidises this activity in part by helping to build corporate collections. The organising secretary, Petronilla Silver, has none of the slick polish of the other women mentioned in this article and her office is genuinely ugly, fluorescently lit and totally undecorated. She has no clever theories about how budgets should be arranged and no sales patter for the reluctant corporation. But her organisation is taken seriously by this country’s major art institutions with good reason. Within the field of British art she is knowledgeable and rigorous, and she has an absolutely top-notch eye. In a collection of hers which I saw, the works make perfect sense in their locations and they balance without competing or draining one another. She does not have the manner of high purpose of Bridge Brown or Sarah Long, but she works with integrity; like both of those CAAs, she finds the idea of helping someone to buy art she thinks is second-rate horrifying. I did not always like the paintings that Petronilla Silver had chosen, but I could always see why she had chosen them, and that is often the sign of a really good collection.

Upstairs from The Contemporary Art Society is the National Art Collections Fund whose director, Sir Peter Wakefield, is also chairman of the Wapping Corporate Art Trust. The NACF has a long history of involvement in corporate sponsorship for the arts and their exhibition at Sotheby’s this month, which includes many works bought by corporate tycoons in the earlier part of this century, reflects that commitment. The Wapping Corporate Art Trust is another charity, involved primarily in giving awards for strong corporate collections and in engendering excitement about the idea of corporate collecting altogether. “We persuade companies to put their toes in the water of contemporary art,” explains Sir Peter Wakefield. “In every company there is someone with fire in his belly, and we try to give them the courage to speak out and start a collection.”

The last two firms I visited operate on a different scale from all these. They are the firms led by men and both of them come down unequivocally on the side of business. Art for offices, which is joint sponsor of the WCAT awards, is the oldest and perhaps the best-established interest in the CAA field and, with a permanent staff of 22 and a stable of more than 800 artists, it is obviously turning over a good share of the business. The managing director of the firm, Peter Harris, talks about corporate buying in terms of the “three b’s,” which are Business, Building, and Budget. He has some quite intelligent and quite well-informed staff working for him. No doubt it would be possible to put together a good collection with Art for Offices, and their resident CAAs seem to know which art would fit the bill if that were what you wanted. But by God it would be easy to put together something horrid. In the rooms of their office/gallery space there are rather wonderful and whimsical paintings hanging side by side with things so naff they make your skin crawl. There are framed watercolours of the sort nasty dentists hang in their offices to add insult to injury, and oils of the City it would be embarrassing to receive on greetings cards.

It should be noted that virtually every major corporation in the UK from Coutts to British Telecom has at some point used Art for Offices, and that they are no doubt dependable, competent and accommodating. Tell them what you want and they will gladly get it for you. But tread carefully. For one client, they recently put together an entire collection of paintings “which dealt with the theme of protection from the elements.” That is simply not what contemporary art is to do with, commented one CAA and “it’s the tragedy of all that good money being squandered,” commented another.

Grenville Gibbs is like a souped-up version of Art for Office and there has been much tension between the two. Hugo Grenville claims that Art for Offices recently asked various suppliers for framing and other materials to boycott Grenville Gibbs, to the delight of the boys (both old Etonians), who thought this must reflect their success. Joe Gibbs is setting up in Scotland; Hugo Grenville is running the London branch of the firm out of a rather splendid office/warehouse in Fulham. The Grenville Gibbs brochures are so slick — Hugo Grenville used to be in advertising — that one can hardly countenance them. Hugo Grenville himself is perfectly charming. He used, we are told in one of the slick brochures, to be in the Coldstream Guards and I do not doubt that his easy confident manner served him well in that capacity. But in my own opinion his taste in art is spotty. Like Art for Office, Grenville Gibbs shows work by a few fairly good painters and work by many, many yucky painters. In the recent past the firm has found risqué Edwardian prints for the loos in a new hotel; it has commissioned a mural “in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec” for a restaurant, and it has arranged to have quite a few spectacular reproductions done for people who want Old Master paintings but can’t afford them. They have a vast store of second-rate nineteenth century architectural prints and a lot of pretty little watercolours. Hugo Grenville has an eye for the decorative and if you have an obscure project or an outlandish demand or if you just want pretty things, he’s the one for you. Certainly his gallery does not sport the hideosities of Art for office, but the idea that art serves a communicative function seems to be lost on him. As a glorified design firm, this one is terrific; but if, as he maintains, these works are all going to escalate steadily in value, making them a fine investment, then it is time to give up on the art market once and for all.

The issues in all this are more important than perhaps they seem. In West Berlin, where public funding for art often seems to be unlimited, there is a great overabundance of subsidised idiocy, and the casual visitor to that city might well conclude that government sponsorship is an ill-considered license for intellectual self-indulgence. But there is also much conceptual work being done in Berlin that at least strives to be original, thought-provoking, moving, shocking and astonishing — that attempts, in short, to meet all the historical aims of the avant-garde.

To go on an open studio tour of London is depressing. It is not so much that the work does not accomplish its ends well and nobly, as that those ends are so often at an unbridgeable distance from the rich variety art has discovered since photography relieved it of responsibility for visual accuracy. In these Thatcherite days art consultants are, at a certain level, the only hope of young artists. They can, when they choose, persuade corporations to sponsor some of what is best in contemporary British art. But no corporation will sponsor artists whose work is not appealing to some fairly mainstream aesthetic. And life — sad but true — is not always appealing.

What Mrs. Thatcher has gleefully taken away cannot be replaced by the consulting skills of a firm that considers the three Bs. Her naïve insistence that artists create only what they can sell, that they produce only commodities, fits in all too well with her idea that people should study only what is concretely useful. Such ideas undermine a society in which honest expression and the quest for true knowledge have for centuries dignified and sustained the very humanity which prosperity is supposed to engender. The work of some of the corporate art advisers described in this article is fine work indeed, but its current ascendancy in the British art world is a statistic as horrifying and moving as the art it excludes.