A wall of dots by Damien Hirst greets visitors to Deutsche Bank AG’s offices in London.
“Biotin-Maleimide” (1995), one of Hirst’s signature spot paintings, hangs near a mirrored stainless-steel ball by Anish Kapoor (“Turning the World Upside Down III,” 1996) and a man painted sideways by Sigmar Polke (“Drehung,” 1979).
Those three pieces, together worth millions of dollars, are among the 55,000 artworks in more than 900 Deutsche Bank buildings and 45 countries worldwide. They’re not very representative, though: The rest of the collection consists mostly of works on paper that cost, on average, 1,000 pounds ($1,583) each.
The bank also co-funds Deutsche Guggenheim, a Berlin exhibition venue set up with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and sponsors the Frieze Art Fair in London, which it has backed since the fair’s second year in 2004.
“Frieze was an instant success, so it wasn’t a difficult decision,” says Alistair Hicks, 54, the bank’s London-based art adviser. “There was instantly a buzz about it.”
“We recognized back then that London needed an international fair that promoted a broad spectrum of new art, and we shared the same ambition,” says Hicks. “We’ve benefited from partnership with a force for change.”
This year, the bank gives its Artist of the Year award at a Frieze luncheon, and exhibits works on paper bought in the past year. They include photographs by the Nigerian-born Samuel Fosso, 2-meter-high monotypes by Gavin Turk, and photographs by the Chinese artist Cao Fei (who spent six months in an Osram light-bulb factory in China).
Shopping at Frieze
Conveniently, the buying committee -- which clears every purchase -- is fully present at Frieze, so every year Deutsche buys about 20 works costing 3,000 pounds to 5,000 pounds each.
Staff seems to like the Frieze relationship, which is reviewed every three years. The 800 free tickets offered on the Internet this year were snapped up in less than 10 minutes. (They would otherwise cost 25 pounds per adult.)
Frieze sponsorship and the bank’s permanent display of works on paper are part of a companywide philosophy that “Deutsche Bank should be more than about money” and that staff should enjoy a “stimulating work environment,” Hicks says.
Prints, sketches and photographs hang in meeting rooms named after artists -- and give bankers an alternative to wallpaper and potted plants. The curious ones can browse catalogs in the room about the artist’s life and work.
“We’re buying works of art that are accessible to our staff, and not too expensive,” says Hicks. “We don’t want to put them off with big splashy art on the walls.”
Why works on paper? “Small is good, detail is good,” says Hicks. Besides, that’s how art originates: “The concept, the ideas are in the works on paper.”
Outside the Bacon room is “Study for a Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1989), a drawing by Francis Bacon preparing for the famous series of screaming popes inspired by Velazquez. The drawing has just returned from an exhibition in Rome.
The Freud room has a Lucian Freud etching -- “Woman With an Arm Tattoo” (1996) -- of a chubby female figure napping with her fist under her chin.
During the 2008-9 financial crisis, “we had to come out and say why we should be doing it,” says Hicks. “If there are times when one is laying off staff, it’s difficult to justify spending.”
According to Bloomberg News data, in the months after the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Deutsche Bank cut some 2,000 jobs worldwide.
On balance, works on paper are cheap enough to be “the perfect concept for good and bad times,” says Hicks. “We’re not an economic drain on the system.”
The question is whether works on paper aren’t wasted on staffers with neither the time nor the depth of interest, and whether the art wouldn’t be better off on public display.
Management announced a major shift two years ago: to loan 600 works from the collection -- including works by Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz -- to the Staedel Museum in Frankfurt.
“We want to make the Deutsche Bank art collection accessible to a wider audience and thus foster creativity,” Chief Executive Officer Josef Ackermann said in a press release, “which is the prerequisite for innovation, growth and prosperity.”
Hicks, a writer and curator, was hired in 1995 to catalog the London collection, and stayed on as an art adviser-buyer. London at the time had 200 staffers, versus more than 7,000 now, and a sixth of its 3,000-strong collection.
Banks in those days opted for “respectable” art, such as the 19th- and 20th-century works that Morgan Grenfell brought with it when bought by Deutsche Bank in 1989.
The shift ordered by Ackermann has allowed the bank to buy more internationally, and given the art department more flexibility: Selling works, for instance, is no longer banned.
“We’re the first to accept that we’re in banking, not a museum, and that certain works would be better off outside,” says Hicks. “We’re a breathing collection and not there to commemorate a fossilized moment in time.”