Deutsche Bank: A best practice for corporate art engagement? (2015)

R.J. Preece
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship

| 18 December 2016
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, 34(9), November 2015, pp. 20-23.


The Deutsche Bank art collection, started over 30 years ago, has grown to around 60,000 artworks. Many of the works are installed in [800-900] offices in 45 of the 78 countries where the bank operates, and they are also exhibited in international museum shows. In 1997, Deutsche Bank founded the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, in curatorial partnership with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; in April 2013, [the Deutsche Bank continued this initiative on the site with the “Deutsche Bank KunstHalle”, with a remit actually encompassing curatorial and arts administration.] Its Artist of the Year award program, now in its 7th year, features traveling exhibitions. Deutsche Bank is the main sponsor of the Frieze Art Fairs in London and New York, and it also publishes an art magazine. Perhaps unexpectedly, the collection’s activities are administered through the bank’s communications and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department.

[While a number of corporate art collections have faced challenges to their remits, especially since the economic crisis kicked in, does the Deutsche Bank’s approach to art offer a best practice for corporate engagement? To explore this question, I interviewed] senior curator Alistair Hicks, one of an international team of curators. [He also heads the art side of the Deutsche Bank Art Advisory Service, which provides consulting. (As described by Hicks, it’s more about the non-financial aspects drawn from the bank’s extensive experience of art engagement.)] Hicks is the author of School of London (Phaidon, 1989), New British Art in the Saatchi Collection (Thames & Hudson, 1989), Art Works: British and German Contemporary Art 1960–2000 (Merrell, 2001), and The Global Art Compass: New Directions in 21st Century Art (Thames & Hudson, 2014).

[The following are excerpts of the conversation:]

R.J. Preece: What do you see as the main aesthetic objectives of the Deutsche Bank art collection? What are its business objectives? Would you describe them as "integrated" or "supplemental"?

Alistair Hicks: I think Deutsche Bank was the first organization to realize that you needed an integrated approach and an art concept. They devised this art concept to try to make art an integrated part of our DNA, even if it’s a very small part. Obviously, our main job is banking. But part of our logo and identity has always been that we are about more than just money. This is part of that process, to show that we play an active role in the community, that we are interested in everything that’s going on. It’s also about helping people working in and visiting our offices to engage with the outside world in a fun and stimulating way.

R.J. Preece: What exactly is the Deutsche Bank Art Advisory Service?

Alistair Hicks: The service is us, the bank, using our resources for clients. The whole art concept is aimed at making a more stimulating environment for the staff and people visiting the banks and supporting the communities in which our offices are located. The art advisory service is us supplying our knowledge and information to clients in the same way that one would share any other knowledge. For instance, I might be approached by someone who looks after a client who said they are interested in XYZ. The service is individually tailored. It’s not an approach in which we have a theory about how art should be bought and then supply it to everyone. It’s very much an interaction.

Most people outside the banking or art world would have the idea that the art advisory service is business-oriented and all about financial advice. It is possible to do that, but we would have to draw up long contracts with clients in order to supply financial advice on what to buy and what not to buy. Most of our clients do not want that sort of information, they already have it. What they need is the background information that we are able to supply in a different way.

R.J. Preece: This is offered to businesses and private individuals?

Alistair Hicks: It can be everyone that the bank deals with.

R.J. Preece: Is the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle organized like a state-sponsored kunsthalle, or [is there an innovative re-structuring in the organization type, comparable to what we see happening in various business sectors?] What is the aesthetic remit?

Alistair Hicks: Deutsche Bank ran the Deutsche Guggenheim very successfully for 15 years in curatorial partnership with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. During this time, the exhibition hall was established as a platform for international contemporary art. Since April 2013, Deutsche Bank has carried on with new priorities. The Deutsche Bank KunstHalle defines itself as a place of discovery— an institution that is as alive and in flux as the German capital itself. One focus of the three to four annual exhibitions is on new artistic terrain and the phenomena of globalized society. In the KunstHalle, the Deutsche Bank Collection can be experienced in a new way— in exhibitions conceived by artists and international guest curators. One highlight of the program is the presentation of Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year, who is honored with a major solo exhibition. At the same time, the KunstHalle provides a forum for young [talents on] Berlin’s international art scene, presenting them for the first time to a broad public. We also started a new cooperation with Tate Modern last year. Deutsche Bank’s art division is in charge of the programming and all operational aspects of the KunstHalle.

R.J. Preece: What is the business justification for working with the Frieze Art Fairs in London and New York?

Alistair Hicks: We decided to be the main sponsor of the Frieze Art Fair back in its second year. We’ve been sponsoring it for 11 years in London. There are two reasons why we were interested. First, we recognize the organization. Though we are obviously a financial institution, we are looking beyond the commercial side of art and trying to encourage people to get involved with things right across the board. We noticed from the beginning that Frieze was trying to take a more active role across a broad spectrum— the Frieze projects, the films, education. We like that approach. Secondly, to be very straightforward, this offered us a way to link ourselves to an event that we thought was going to change things in London, which it has helped to do.

It is paid for by the business, rather than by the art department, so it was a business decision to go with an organization that we thought was actively promoting young art in an international way. Frieze was the first proper international art fair in London. There was a real gap at that moment. There had been quite a few attempts, but this was the first one to really make the leap. When Frieze expanded to New York a couple of years ago, we decided to continue the support there.

R.J. Preece: To what extent do you think that the Deutsche Bank approach to collecting, exhibiting, and supporting satellite activities should be considered a "best practice" for corporate art participation?

Alistair Hicks: [The way that Deutsche Bank art concept is a best practice is the way it was devised in the late 1970s. At the time,] while there were other good corporate collections, we thought about what art should be doing for businesses, the limitations, the fact that any art that we were buying and the art activities that we were doing, in a company with shares, was going to have to justify itself.

I think that is the main area where the approach shows best practice. There was the realization that what we were getting out of it was being involved in contemporary art, which really is about change, change, and more change. I don’t believe that anyone can claim to be a contemporary art expert, because as soon as you claim to be an expert, it has changed. As in business, you are only as good as your next deal, your next idea, your next partnership, rather than what you’ve done in the past.

So, by getting involved with all of these wonderful artists, their vision of how the world is changing has changed the thinking of many people who work in the bank, and has changed the thinking of many people with whom we deal. From that point of view, I think the concept has been inspirational, so much so that I think it would be very difficult now for major companies to support old art rather than the art of the moment.

R.J. Preece: You were quoted in Time magazine (October 24, 2010) as saying, "I call us the subversive department… We are happy to not be just the smooth extension of Deutsche Bank branding." Did you say this to please an art audience, or is it for real?

Alistair Hicks: It depends on how you interpret "subversive". I reckon anyone who is good at his or her job is subversive to a certain extent. [This is a quote from quite an old… (laughs).]

R.J. Preece: [(Laughs.) It’s a great quote.]

Alistair Hicks: And I’m not taking it back at all, because I think that if you are going to be good at your job, you have to question things. The great joy of working at Deutsche Bank is their support for a department that questions how we’re living, how we’re doing things.

We’re not endorsing any individual artist. We’re just supplying a platform. And it’s the same with our activities. So when I said, "We are the subversive department," I was really saying that we link some of the leading radical minds in the world to the environment in which we work.

R.J. Preece: [What advantages are there] being a curator at a corporation versus a museum, biennial organization, etc.?

Alistair Hicks: The advantages are surprising. I often become a spokesperson for the non-commercial world, because museums have become very commercial. We have to justify our [everything] to shareholders, with strict report lines. We have committees around the world, so the curators never really buy anything. They’re presenting things to committees; everything has to be approved, all the way up the line.

There are advantages to working for an organization that is very rational. Museums have become such hybrids; there used to be a strict divide between state and private. In most museums, the state has taken a step back and expects the private sector to supply a lot of the drive. This means that the people running our museums, the trustees, are very much part of the art market. So what you have is a situation in which the art decision-making process is left to the market.

R.J. Preece: Are there any disadvantages?

Alistair Hicks: I suppose that there have been artists over the years who didn’t want to work with the commercial world.

R.J. Preece: What are some common misunderstandings about corporate art collections and activities in general and about Deutsche Bank’s involvement in particular?

Alistair Hicks: No one can believe that Deutsche Bank is not buying art for investment. Everyone assumes we are buying it for investment, however many times we say no, we are not. People find that very difficult to understand, particularly because we are in such a commercial environment.

[R.J. Preece: You say it’s not for investment. Is it budgeted within the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) area then?

Alistair Hicks: We are in the communications / CSR department, yes. But when the concept was born, it was probably pre-CSR department, although I think CSR was actually invented in the 1950s, I think.

R.J. Preece: So it’s CSR and communications, which a lot of the art world doesn’t understand...] Since the economic crisis, some corporate art collections have been under threat [as it can be perceived not to be] part of the company’s core business. How is the Deutsche Bank collection different in this regard?

Alistair Hicks: I don’t want to say we are immune to economic pressures, obviously we’re not. [To be honest, how long most collections last, and corporate collections are no different.] I think the average age of a collection is 11 years. It’s a slightly daunting thought. We’re an ancient being. I think the difference is that we decided to be a small and integral part of the business, and that has been recognized since the beginning.

[R.J. Preece: Who are the key stakeholders that decide on the overall art programming? Is it Deutsche Bank’s board of directors?

Alistair Hicks: Every decision we’ve made is by different boards, but we have a reporting system that we report up to. As I said earlier, we have committees around the world. We have 8 curators around the world and a team that reports, making presentations to different committees. As we discussed earlier, we report to the communications teams.]

R.J. Preece: Does the art department need to work closely with communications to achieve mutual aesthetic and business goals for the benefit of the corporation?

Alistair Hicks: Because its prime motivation is engagement with staff, we have to be integrated with all bank departments. For instance, six months before the Frieze Art Fair, we have activation meetings every fortnight, and as it approaches, every week. Sometimes, this will involve as many as 20 or 30 people from all different sides of the bank. This is because for it to work properly, we need to engage the staff, but we are also serving a function internally in the bank and externally.

R.J. Preece: So you need to consider both internal and external communications.

Alistair Hicks: Yes. One of the rather radical sides of the art concept was that it wasn’t just top-down. It was led from everybody. The idea is that we’re buying art, engaging the staff, for everybody in the bank. I think we were the first organization to decide that art is not just for client-relating areas but for everywhere— our function is to engage everyone working in the bank. I have been quoted as saying, "I don’t have one boss. I have 100,000 bosses."

And this is true. Art is a wonderful key, and it gets us to lots of different places, internally and externally.

R.J. Preece: What can we expect from Deutsche Bank activities in next few years?

Alistair Hicks: The year started with Koki Tanaka, our 2015 Artist of the Year. His exhibition opened at the KunstHalle in March. Basim Magby is our 2016 Artist of the Year. We will be continuing our very successful collaborations with Frieze and exhibitions like "Time Present", which shows the entire range of international contemporary photography in the Deutsche Bank Collection. After the premiere in Singapore, the show travels to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and the Hara Museum in Tokyo.