How to Start a Corporate Art Collection: Essential Questions to Ask to Get it Right

This article was first published on May 19, 2019 by Katie Henry, Director of Art in Offices, an organisation based in London that places art in corporate offices and advises corporations on their art collections. 


Firstly, let’s address what those words “Corporate Art Collection” actually mean, because to small companies, laymen and those new to the art world, I know they can appear a bit highbrow (or scary). A corporate art collection simply means artworks owned by the company. It’s that simple. They don’t have to be big-name artists or expensive artworks that are loaned out to museums, they just have to be owned by a company, not an individual.

The next question to answer is: Why do companies’ collect art? There’s no simple answer to this but the reasons generally fall into one of these five categories:

1.   One of the directors or senior team members is passionate about art, and it has spilt over from their home life into their office/work life.

2.   The company wants something decorative to put on its walls.

3.   The company wants to invest in assets, which hold their value very well and can be sold on easily at a profit.

4.   The company wants to link art to its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) by supporting an artist(s), local creative group, an arts charity, art school etc.

5.   The company wants to expand its marketing and business network reach by loudly and publicly supporting artists through a prize / exhibition / residency.

No alt text provided for this image

For most companies it is a mix of these reasons. For example, Deutsche Bank originally set out to support local artists; Floreat built its collection based on its owner’s likes, and Clifford Chance set out to support the LGBTQ community through its collection.

Whatever the reason(s) you choose, the first question you answer when you set out to collect art is ‘why are we going to collect art?’, because it will lead you and guide you on this adventure.  I say this because the art world is tiny and huge at the same time. Tiny in that once you’re inside the art world you realize that it’s only three degrees of separation from one person to another, and everyone knows someone you know. Huge with regards to the amount of choice out there! There are thousands of artists, thousands of galleries, museums, collectives, and each artist produces hundreds of artworks in their lifetime.

So set some rules at the outset to help guide you on what you want to collect and why. Then you can sift through everything that’s out there to find what you want. At this stage, you should also choose whom your “office art angel” or art committee are going to be. I suggest limiting this to as few people as possible when you’re starting out (too many cooks spoil the broth). People can get involved as the project grows – there will be plenty of opportunities.

So now you know the reason you’re collecting art, the second question is: Which art will connect with your brand values, and represent your brand narrative? How can you possibly answer this question if you don’t have any expertise in the arts? Well, this is the stage you would ordinarily get an art advisor in. [Claxon sounds!] Art advisors don’t have to be expensive! Sometimes it’s the senior partner’s wife, or it could be the interior designer or architect. Companies like mine, Art in Offices, offer advice for free and only take a commission on sales (from the gallery or artist, not from the client). We’re also impartial because it’s all about finding you the right thing.  Galleries will also give their advice for free if you’re going to buy their artists (they’re less impartial). The most expensive option is to have a curator or art advisor on retainer, paying them a salary to select the choicest artworks. I recommend that most companies should aim to build up to this, and start with some free advice.

No alt text provided for this image

However, if you’ve reached out to the free options for advice and still don’t know how to connect your art collection to your brand values, here are some pointers:

  • Think of your company as a personality, are they straight-laced and serious, young and fun, knowledgeable and trustworthy, Avant Garde and techy?
  • Choose art which matches this personality – would a piece of graffiti art sit well in a lawyer’s office? It would probably sit better in a start-up’s office, or a music and entertainment company’s office.
  • Think about your visitors – what do you want them to think as they visit your office? Does that angry bull on a red background say “welcome, we’re a family run Spanish company” or does it say “we’re all male, angry and full of testosterone”? I’ll let you decide.
  • Art doesn’t have to literally reflect what you do, but the story of the art should. When you meet a new client you want to be able to talk about your fascinating art collection of BAME artists/female only artists/artists in their first year of graduating/artists who have no carbon footprint/artists who were refugees. Your clients will get a strong sense of your brand values from this story.
  • Think about your company culture and how you want to connect art to that
No alt text provided for this image

Next: You know why you’re collecting art, and which type of art or artist you think will fit with your brand, and you may or may not have found some free advice. So where do you find art? Well this is the easy part, as offices are generally in big cities, big cities usually have a cultural scene that can be directly accessed through art exhibitions and galleries.

If you have a designated person on the team to source art from independent sources, it can be huge amounts of fun but time consuming. This person would also ideally have some expertise in art, or at least a passion for it. If you don’t have a person on the team like this, you need to go back to the person who offered you free advice before, and ask them if they can source some art for you. I frequently work with architects and interior designers to source art for clients, and even more frequently it’s an office manager who has been asked to find some art, but doesn’t know where to start.

The best places to find art are: Degree Shows at art schools, Art Fairs, Galleries (local or otherwise), auction houses (local or otherwise) and through art dealers and art advisors.

A note of warning: If you want to collect art as an asset, or you hope to sell it on at some point in the future, DO NOT go to a gallery that’s part of a chain (frequently found in shopping malls or on high streets). They sell nice art certainly, but they create a market for their own artists, and so they have no value to anyone else (which you need if you’re going to sell it on). I will be writing more on where to find artwork in the next few weeks.

No alt text provided for this image

Lastly, the big question: How much should we spend on art? I’m afraid there is no simple answer to this, and you will have to decide as a company. You could set yourself a percentage aside each year to spend, or alternatively you could limit yourself to a maximum amount per piece. Perhaps you use all or some of the company profits each quarter, or perhaps think of it as a proportion of a staff member’s salary. If you’re just starting out, start small and build up.

These few questions should get you started on your journey to collecting corporate art. If you have any more questions then please get in touch for some more free advice on mailto:enquiries@artinoffices.com.

No alt text provided for this image