Corporate Art in Tight Times

When Dallas Cowboys fans hit the concession stands this season, some may find themselves beneath a 118-foot-wide yolk-yellow geometric mural, Unexpected Variable Configurations: A Work in Situ, by French conceptual artist Daniel Buren. It's a significant piece in Cowboys Stadium's collection of 21 large-scale artworks. "It has exposed the sports fan to art," says Brett Daniels, a Cowboys spokesman, "whether they like it or not."

Banks, law firms, and insurance companies have long used art collections to appear sophisticated and amply capitalized, but when the financial crisis hit, many companies were forced to downsize or liquidate. Others have resisted, recognizing the importance of art to their corporate identity—even if, like the Cowboys, that identity has absolutely nothing to do with art.

Corporate collections, however, often emerge simply because the CEO likes art. Bayer's collection has grown to include 5,500 works since the pharmaceutical conglomerate's first managing director, Carl Duisberg, began collecting German Expressionists like Max Beckmann. Paintings by James Rosenquist and Salvador Dalí line the walls of Playboy Enterprises' (PLA) Chicago headquarters because "Hef has a love of art and a great eye," says Playboy curator Aaron Baker. Hugh Hefner didn't set out to collect art, but when the magazine commissioned artwork, he sometimes bought the results. That's how the bow tie-wearing Andy Warhol bunny— a souvenir from the January 1986 cover—entered the trove. Baker says the Warhol is "priceless" to Playboy. If you need to put a figure on it, a monumental 1986 Warhol Self-Portrait fetched $32.6 million at Sotheby's (BID) in May.

In other cases, it's the boss's spouse who does the collecting. Christina Chandris, the spouse of Celebrity Cruises (RECL) co-founder and Chairman John Chandris, cooked up a plan in the mid-'90s to outfit three ships with art. She acquired works by Marina Abramovic, who recently staged a nude show at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and German photographer Thomas Ruff, best known for his blurred images of Internet porn—not the normal family cruise decor. Despite being acquired by Royal Caribbean International in 1997, three new ships include over 400 unique works apiece. The piano bar in the Equinox even has a Louise Bourgeois print of her signature spider. Ships offer "self-paced" iPad tours for travelers tired of waiting on the buffet line.

Collections are also spawned by new offices. In 1964, farm equipment manufacturer John Deere (DE) moved to a new headquarters in Moline, Ill., designed by renowned architect Eero Saarinen. Subsequently, CEO and Chairman William A. Hewitt installed a 2,000-piece collection that includes modernist artists Alexander Calder and Henry Moore. One thematic concession: Grant Wood's 1931 Fall Plowing, with a steel plow, invented by John Deere, in the foreground. Perhaps as surprisingly, the Cleveland Clinic has three curators overseeing its 4,086-piece collection. Curator Joanne Cohen has acquired 1,896 new works since 2006, partly funded by a 2007 sale of a $2.5 million Milton Avery painting at Sotheby's.

The austere climate has given rise to new, less expensive solutions for corporate collectors. Alexander Glauber, a former curatorial assistant at asset management firm Neuberger Berman, has launched Corporate Art Solutions, which rents artwork for six-month periods, with an option to buy, based on its retail price. "It allows companies to focus on connecting with the art," says Gauber, "instead of worrying about the cost." Or worrying about getting a reptuation for being broke.

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