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"White Spiral" by Lore Bert at Art Cologne 2008
Contemporary art keeps employees in touch with the present, said HuetteImage: Picture-Alliance /dpa

Corporate Art

Interview: Kate Bowen, Jennifer Abramsohn
April 17, 2008

Art Cologne, which opened on Wednesday, April 16, is a prime stop for corporate art collectors with million-euro budgets. The head of Deutsche Bank's massive art collection explained why they buy top-notch office art.


With over 53,000 individual pieces, Deutsche Bank has amassed one of the largest corporate art collections in the world. Its "Art at Work" initiative was started in 1979. DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Friedhelm Huette, global head of Deutsche Bank Art, about which works the bank buys and why it's important to hang modern art on office walls.

DW-WORLD.DE: How do you decide which works of art to add to Deutsche Bank's collection?

Friedhelm Huette: Since we started collecting art, we have had clear criteria for deciding what to include. The first is that we want to support young talent. Young means that the artists have already had two or three gallery exhibitions or an exhibit -- artists who have already made a bit of progress in the art scene and developed their own position.

Empty frame
What goes in the frame has to be suitable for an officeImage: AP GraphicsBank

The other point is making discoveries. There may be artists to discover who have been active in the art scene for a long time but aren't well known or need to be rediscovered. Yesterday, for example, we bought works on paper by Tony Conrad at ArtCologne. They're from the 1970s and weren't known at all; they'd been hidden in a drawer since then and were on display for the very first time. That is also a kind of discovery.

We collect largely works on paper -- that is, drawings, water colors, photography, collages. That limits us to some extent. Our focus is also international. We look to India, Ukraine, Brazil -- the spectrum is wide.

We inform ourselves at fairs like ArtCologne, read trade journals, visit studios, look through catalogues, and so on. That way we can get an idea of which artists we want to take a look at. But we are also open to surprises. Art fairs are always good for making discoveries.

Do you place greater emphasis on young, new artists, or on the established ones?

Ninety percent of our works are from young artists.

What kind of budget do you have to work with?

We don't publish the budget for purchasing art. But I can tell you that Deutsche Bank's complete worldwide art budget -- not just for purchases, that would give the wrong impression, but for all art-related activities like exhibitions, partnerships, personnnel, etc. -- amounts to 20 million euros ($31.6 million). The works we buy generally cost between 500 and 10,000 euros ($790 to 15,800) each.

Deutsche Bank headquarters in Frankfurt
Deutsche Bank displays artwork in its branches all over the worldImage: AP

Corporate collections are known for avoiding controversial topics like sex, religion or violence. How careful is Deutsche Bank about avoiding controversy?

Those topics don't necessarily have to be avoided completely. It's important to keep in mind that our collection isn’t kept in drawers, nor is it on display at exhibitions. It appears at the work place -- that’s the concept. That's a very important guideline. Nearly 80,000 employees work there and the art should be inspiring and sophisticated, but we don't want to hurt any feelings.

If, for example, a female employee works near a very tasteful nude and a male visitor asks her five times a day if it's a portrait of her -- we can't have that.

Also, things that are completely acceptable in European culture may not be appropriate in other parts of the world. There are even major differences between Europe and America; what some consider harmless could be seen as politically incorrect elsewhere.

Can you give an example?

A Japanese artist, Miwa Yanagi, did a photo series on elevator girls. She multiplied them and they were sitting on the floor. They were completely clothed. But the works couldn't be shown in Tokyo because the employees were bothered by it, even though it didn't cause any problems here in Europe.

In the 30 years of collecting, we've always said that very sexually explicit topics are not appropriate for the work place. We could buy those kinds of works for the collection and put them on exhibit because they're important pieces of art, but that will always be the exception because the idea is that we buy pieces to hang in offices and conference rooms. That's very different from a museum. Visiting a museum is a voluntary decision, but when people go to work, the art is there whether they want it or not.

Art gives office workers a new perspectiveImage: Picture-Alliance /dpa

We want it to have a positive charisma and make the people think. Political and social topics are present -- in works by [German artist Joerg] Immendorff or [South African artist William] Kentridge, for example, who deal with Germany's past. But making people personally uncomfortable cannot be the point of a concept that is designed to make contemporary art accessible at the work place.

The number of works that can't be considered at all is relatively small, though.

What do you hope that the Deutsche Bank employees will gain from having art in their workplace?

Two things. First of all, that they take an interest in contemporary art. We don't leave them alone but offer numerous opportunities for them to learn more, through libraries, texts on the works, tours, or offsite tours in museums where they can see more works from the same artists.

The second, which I mentioned before, is to bring up certain topics. We believe that collecting and displaying contemporary work is particularly valuable in a company like ours that deals with people. We have to respond to different situations and recognize and develop new ideas and we believe that contemporary art provides a particular opportunity to participate in the present -- also through the foresight and seismology of the artists and contemporary art. Thoughts arise over future developments.

Contemporary art offers a special window to society, which people don't always perceive while they're inside the capsule of their everyday lives.

Does it work?

Very much so. The program is very successful. Branches worldwide participate voluntarily. When a branch shows an interest in the art program, we develop a concept, but those who don't want to can put up posters instead. It's not a requirement. But the interest is very large, as is the employees' interest in our informational programs about the art.

Friedhelm Huette
Friedhelm Huette is the global head of Deutsche Bank ArtImage: Katrin Denkewitz

To what extent is the art project a financial investment and to what extent does it represent a deeper commitment to the arts?

We're making an investment in our employees by offering them something very special, for both the visual and intellectual work environments.

So it's not so much about the monetary value of the artwork?

No, not at all. We invest in our employees and in society by supporting young and promising artists. There's a risk involved, because there's no guarantee that the artists will be successful. But we are convinced that what they put on paper is an interesting artistic statement that's worth drawing attention to, regardless of whether or not it makes the artist famous or not.

What do you expect from this year's ArtCologne?

It should be better than last year because fewer galleries are represented. I think my colleagues and I all agree that it should be reduced even more and that more galleries should be cut.

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