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  • Writer's pictureAlexia Walker

Corporate Art Collections and Cultural Good

First published in Wanted magazine, 3 September 2021

When David Rockefeller formulated the first ever art purchasing programme for Chase Manhattan Bank in 1959, he launched a practise that major banks and law firms in particular would follow. Rockefeller was astute to both facts that banks produce intangible services and societies are mostly remembered by their arts. He understood that an art collection could best tell the story of the company.

Art in the workplace is public. It speaks about prestige. It sends the message that the collecting entity possesses connoisseurship. There is much coolness in spotting talent early and collecting art that has investment potential demonstrates foresight. While corporates rarely collect for investment purposes, should artworks in their collection appreciate, it becomes a mark of good decision-making.

Hasan and Husain Essop, Cape Town (South Africa) variation, Standard Bank Collection

Contemporary art serves as a metaphor for innovation and creativity too. It communicates the company’s identity and serves as a differentiator in an increasingly competitive business environment. Sasol’s collection was started in the early 80’s. Curator Cate Terblanche comments that ‘art and innovation go hand in hand. Artists are thinkers and creators. This resonates with Sasol’s values and corporate culture.’

Her counterpart at Sanlam, Stefan Hundt, points out that ‘most persons who are aware of Sanlam usually remember or mention the art collection as a distinctive element which puts the company on another par to its peers.’ The Sanlam collection was commenced in 1965 and improvement of the company’s public image was amongst the motivations.

Today most art collections tend to reflect the identity of the firm. Dimension Data is a great example. I was personally involved with assembling the art collection for the innovation hub they launched in London after the company was sold to Japanese telecoms giant NTT. The collection was exclusively focused on 21st century South African abstract artists which Chairman Jeremy Ord chose as a way to broadcast Dimension Data’s South Africaness.

But a corporate art collection goes well beyond image and brand building. It represents a social use of art as well. The MTN art collection was established post-apartheid in 1998. Curator Niel Nortje explains that unlike other decades-old South African corporate collections, MTN could start theirs from a fresh slate.

‘Based on the understanding that art has an important role to play in driving social cohesion, fostering nation building and educating the youth on cultural and heritage development’ Nortje continues, ‘the mandate of MTN’s art collection would be to provide educational support and resource development for the South African arts and culture sectors.’

That said, we’ve moved a long way from the form of patronage historically associated with the Medici and the Renaissance. Collecting companies want to support artists and to preserve culture, but they also choose to collect art to enhance the work place and to create a stimulating environment.

Art literally plays a role of internal communications. It touches the lives of the company’s employees. As a reflection of this, art budgets which could traditionally be traced back to Corporate Social Responsibility are increasingly coming out of Human Resources.

This is precisely how Hundt positions the Sanlam collection. ‘The company provides a work environment which is animated by a diversity of individuals with long and short histories of association. The art collection contributes to this environment in many ways beyond the decorative. It harnesses individuals’ perception and encourages diversity in outlook where it is exhibited.’

In Hundt’s opinion, corporate art collections and their raison d’être are generally misunderstood. ‘Any large corporation is a very large evolving organism which functions on a technical logical basis but is driven by the human emotions which drive commitment and engagement and finally success’ he says. This is an important point and staff wellness alone should justify a business’ art expenditure.

Art then becomes part of the company’s ethos. Collections like these are often associated with other art programmes that further consolidate the company’s cultural commitment. Deutsche Bank is one of the largest corporate art collections globally and it is all about engagement. It was started in 1979 and now counts close to 60 000 objects that are displayed in the bank’s offices the world over.

In addition, the bank runs the annual Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year, an award won by the South African Kemang Wa Lehulere in 2017, and owns the Berlin venue Palais Populaire where it can showcase parts of its collection.

South Africa also counts a few all-rounders whose art remit is key to their identity. Absa owns one of the largest corporate collections in Africa which predates its formation in 1991. Each of the four banks that amalgamated to form Absa developed their respective art portfolios independently. Curator Dr Paul Bayliss points out that ‘over the past few years, there has been a greater focus on building a more representative collection reflective of the bank’s presence across the continent.’

‘This is also reflective through the Absa L’Atelier Arts Competition which has broadened its reach to invite artists from all the countries across Africa where Absa has a presence to participate’, Bayliss adds. The bank also owns a gallery space in downtown Joburg.

As for Sasol, ‘art forms an integral part of its daily life, from a dedicated gallery space for exhibitions, to the art hanging in communal working spaces and meeting rooms, to the sponsorship of the Sasol New Signatures art competition’, explains Terblanche. The collection is all about staff engagement and mental wellbeing in the workplace.

Both Sanlam and Standard Bank own a gallery space too where they can show artworks in their collection amongst other exhibition programmes. Standard Bank was amongst the first corporates to collect in the late 1960s and it has been running the Standard Bank Young Artist award since 1981.

Of course, corporate art collecting addresses internal space considerations and embellishes blank walls too, but there’s generally a much bigger purpose for a company to collect. It may be to communicate and enhance the corporate image, improve the work environment, support the art community, or simply to portrait a corporate theme. Yet it is seldom as a financial investment.

With businesses moving out of office blocks in the wake of the pandemic, it will be interesting to watch how corporate collecting evolves. There are early signs it may continue unbattered and only shift in format.

Absa has already taken to hosting all of its activities on its newly launched virtual platform, the Absa Art Hot Spot while Sasol’s Terblanche is noting a greater interest in art generally, which she ascribes to the need we all have to ‘slip away’ from the harshness of the reality we are all facing.

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