Pinstripe Medicis

City businessmen may seem unlikely art patrons, but it is where the smart money is. More than half of all spending on 20th-century art in this country is by corporations, and they are as likely to buy Gilbert and George as Gainborough. John Windsor reports. Portraits by Ronen Numa
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Employees at a London firm of accountants found the innovative contemporary paintings hung on office walls by management very useful indeed. They used them as notice boards, covering them with sticky yellow Post-it notes and indicator pins.

That was 10 years ago. Today, employees know better than to stick pins in the corporate image. Those trendy paintings and way-out sculptures are a statement: "We're at the cutting edge - both in art and business."

They are also management's new way of waking up dozy staff. Forget the pep talks. Dump those tame figuratives and wallpaper-like abstracts - then stick a challenging Gilbert and George or Bruce McLean in their workspace, and watch which way they jump.

More than half the money spent on 20th-century art in this country is now spent by corporations - especially by those most pin-striped institutions: banks, finance houses and accountants. To them, an empty wall, an empty atrium, is a provocation. They rush to hang something impressive in it. They are the new art patrons. Medicis in suits. And the freelance art consultants who serve them have found a pot of gold.

Stroll through the leather-bound clubland of St James's Square, past the stuffy half-Edwardian, half Victorian neo-classical offices of BAA Lynton, BAA's property development wing, and Zoe Chamberlain's daring three-metre high spiral fibre-optic and fabric sculpture, Spiraglo, flashes through the window. The contemporary art consultants, Howick, installed it this month. They discovered Chamberlain two years ago, at her graduation show at the Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Renaissance, a gigantic 60-square metre sculpted glass wall by Graham Jones, one of Britain's leading big-scale glass workers, looms in the foyer of SmithKline Beecham's pounds 250m new research and development headquarters in Harlow, Essex. Commissioned by International Art Consultants, its role is to amaze and inspire both visiting clients and employees.

In the skies - David Hockney's design on the tail of a BA aeroplane. In the motor showroom - a BMW painted by David Hockney. We like art. We like Hockney. We're hip.

Few British companies collected art seriously before 1975. Now there are 200 corporate collections - 90 per cent of them of contemporary art. The galleries of International Art Consultants in Dock Street, in London's East End, are crammed with 39,000 artworks priced from pounds 100 to pounds 100,000. IAC deals with 800 living artists and places 300 artworks a week with its client list of 250 companies.

American corporations were into art 10 years before the British - and bore the brunt of the teething troubles that can occur when mindless spontaneity (art) meets mindless regimentation (company culture). In 1981 (later than you might expect), an art-for-the-office programme was launched by Dennis Evans, newly elected president of First Bank, Minneapolis, which has become a corporate art horror story.

At the time, the banking industry was being shaken up by deregulation. Evans confronted his 350 office workers with Kenny Scharf graffiti, a fearsome, deformed lizard by English sculptor Eric Bainbridge, and 3,000 other aesthetic challenges. Employees were bussed to art galleries and artists' lofts, given art seminars, shown art education films - then invited to speak out at company talkback sessions.

It was great. Management lauded the programme as an opportunity to express feelings, an exercise in critical self-awareness vital to corporate culture. Then the bank's profits toppled from $203m to a loss of $310m, Evans resigned - and the artworks were sold.

British Telecom, a company without an art collection that buys art to decorate its new buildings, had intimations of enlightenment similar to Evans's when Art Contact, one of four consultants tendering for the interior decoration of its new Stockley Park offices, near Heathrow, put up the idea of a 3m-tall, 6m-wide mobile by 35-year-old Simon Lofting. A snip at pounds 7,000.

I have followed the project with interest. The mobile, Big Blue, based on the work of the American Alexander Calder, who pioneered the now-neglected art of mobiles in the Thirties, was installed as the focal point of BT's "Work Style 2000", (dubbed "hot-desking" by the unappreciative), in the cafeteria. There, keen 2000- style workers are expected to mingle and engage in creative chat. The mobile symbolises balance and equilibrium in nature - and management.

As it happened, the corporate culture into which it was inserted was one in which a union-management dispute was rumbling over whether cups of coffee should be allowed out of the cafeteria and into the workspace. During the mobile's installation, a manager asked to lend a hand to steady the wobbling structure felt impelled to reach for his mobile telephone to seek advice. During The Independent's photo shoot, a member of the cafeteria staff, asked for permission to use an electric socket, hurried off to consult higher authority. Most frequent comments from cafeteria users: "How much did it cost?" and, "What's it supposed to be?"

Lofting is philosophical. He praises the management's foresight in re- siting infra-red smoke detectors so the mobile would not trigger false alarms. He is particularly appreciative of management's decision to pipe jets of air into the cafeteria - after it had been discovered that in the still, air-conditioned space, the mobile was not mobile at all.

When Bupa decided to form an art collection for its new building in Holborn, in collaboration with the Contemporary Art Society, the sculptor Eileen Jacobs, wife of Bupa's chief executive, Peter Jacobs, got staff on board by launching an art group. Dr David Costain, assistant to the medical director, will find himself on his feet next month, explaining to an in-house audience the collection's four abstract monoprints by Basil Beattie.

Compared with self-image and the enlightenment of employees, making a profit, you might think, is undreamt of. (BT's art buying, typically, is the responsibility of its Brand and Corporate Reputation Team.) But those few companies that started buying art in the early Seventies have done rather well out of it. Their collections have outperformed gold, shares, government securities and property.

The finest and most valuable corporate collections - notably those of Hiscox, the Lloyd's underwriters and insurers, and of Fleming, the merchant bankers - were bought neither to make a statement nor to make a profit. Significantly, both collections were built up by inspired art enthusiasts - committees of one who bought what they liked. It's the only way to buy art, as hundreds of rich art dealers will tell you.

Fleming, which sponsors an annual prize for corporate art collections, has the finest collection of Scottish art in private hands - 850 works bought over 30 years. For 18 years, until his death in 1985, Fleming's David Donald, an investment manager, was given a free hand. He ignored consultants. Dressed in a loud check suit that would not have looked out of place on a racecourse, he would breeze into meeting rooms filled with clients and hold forth about the pictures he had bought at a time when Scottish art was less appreciated than it is today. He snapped up superb still-lifes and figures by the Scottish Colourist, Samuel Peploe (around pounds 5,000 in the late Seventies, up to pounds 500,000 today), 26 Anne Redpath still- lifes and landscapes, and watercolours by the then under-rated "Glasgow Boy", DY Cameron.

Fleming's present "keeper of art", 26-year-old Selina Skipwith, is still buying. She has acquired the brash "New Glasgow Boys" - Peter Howson, Stephen Barclay, Steven Campbell, Stephen Conroy - as well as John Bellany (including his nightmarish The Ettrick Shepherd of 1967), and Jock McFadyen's "fun" painting, Hawksmoor and Golden Wonder" (1988).

Robert Hiscox started buying - against his accountants' advice - when he took over the business following his father's death in 1970, acquiring works by the then-neglected, now blue-chip Modern Brits Freud, Auerbach and Bacon. He says, wryly: "There is no greater thrill with your clothes on (as Woody Allen would say) than buying a painting you passionately desire at auction. Being unable to resist irresistible works of art has not only prevented us from spending money on some ridiculous loss-making diversifications, but has repaid us with enormous pleasure. Now, when I get in a selling mood, my fellow directors talk me out of it."

Hiscox has clearly got his eye in. Besides the Freuds and Nicholsons, Bombergs and Burras, there are more contemporary works - a Gilbert and George postcard piece of Charles and Diana, a colour photograph of a low- life household by Richard Billingham, and a cell-cluster painting by Sensation artist Mark Francis.

There are also abstracts by Ivon Hitchens and the St Ives artist Peter Lanyon - Modern Brits who have stood the test of the art market and whose names are whispered by art consultants when chivvied into talking investment.

Harry Smith of the Gurr Johns art consultancy, an admirer of the Fleming and Hiscox collections, asks his clients: "Are you a gambler or not?" Among his safe bets are modern/contemporary - but established - names, such as Sir Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Bill Jacklin, Alan Davie, John Bellany, Therese Oulton. In 30 years' time, he predicts, they are more likely to have retained their reputations than Damien Hirst - and their works can still be bought for a few thousand pounds.

Smith advised ICI to buy back the tempera original of the Corrosion poster they had commissioned from Edward Wadsworth in 1941. The company had given it away as a retirement present, despite Wadsworth's growing reputation. It cost them pounds 25,300 at Sotheby's. Good investment. And good for the company image.

Peter Harris of International Art Consultants has a matching little list of reputations that have firmed up within the past 20 years. The pop artists Allen Jones, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton and their contemporary, Patrick Caulfield. Tony Cragg, John Hoyland. Terry Frost, Albert Irvine. Piper, Hodgkin, Hockney. Rachel Whiteread. And, oddly, Beryl Cook. In 30 years' time, he reckons, they will be seen to have contributed to the history of contemporary art. They are, in other words, the wish-I'd-boughts of the future.

Most company art curators do gamble. It's called supporting young British artists. The accountants Coopers Lybrand are famously daring. Bupa reckons its potter Loretta Branganza, artist Jeremy Dickinson and photographer Helen Sear are emerging talents. But it has nevertheless laid in its Craggs and Caulfields.

Young artists who think they have arrived when a company buys their work could be disappointed. Most company collections - no matter how prestigious - are badly publicised and unseen by the public. But it can pay an artist to be spotted by an art consultant. The consultants Alistair and Louisa Howick thought it a "crying shame" that 36-year-old John Bartlett's massive and politically contentious portrayal of the 1990 Trafalgar Square Poll Tax riots, History Painting - reminiscent of the Florentine Uccello and Picasso's Guernica - should be shunned as a hot potato by dealers. They arranged a six-month loan for it at the re-launch of the Museum of London's Now Gallery, where it had the good fortune to be denounced by a Conservative MP. It has become the cover picture of The Oxford Handbook of Criminology - and they are now negotiating its sale at around pounds 20,000.

Sharpest cutting edge of the corporate collections - and most trying for employees - is Bernhard Starkmann's at his firm Starkmann Library Services, which distributes scholarly publications to European libraries from a converted dairy in Lisson Grove, north London. He had his 21ft- boardroom table covered in a layer of water-filled polythene by English artist Craig Wood. He delights in commissioning work that will "render the boardroom useless for commercial purposes" or "knock the visitors' room to bits". The public is seldom allowed in and the collection is virtually unknown.

He was buying Damien Hirst, Douglas Gordon, Angela Bulloch and Christine Borland long before the YBA halo descended upon them. He owns works by Carl Andre (the Tate bricks minimalist) and Joseph Beuys (crazy objects in felt and fat, crazy prices today). Starkmann's roomy executive office has been host, simultaneously, to an 18f-wide Richard Long stone circle, pollen-filled jam jars by the German artist/shaman Wolfgang Laib, and six power amplifiers and 12 speakers programmed by the Canadian Rodney Graham to play the same musical passage until 38 billion AD. In preparation at Starkmann's: a show by Goldsmithsgraduate Dermot O'Brien that includes a drum kit wrapped in black velvet flocking.

A warning to those who would subvert art to bolster the corporate image. Stefan Bruggemann, a 22-year-old graduate of Mexico City's National Centre For Visual Arts, having noted that a corporate environment can exert a powerful influence on the art within it, has come up with an art installation that bites back. It consists of the removal of the plate-glass window and skirting boards from the Museum of Installation in Deptford, where it is on show. Go there today, the last day - or tomorrow, to see whether he manages to put it all back. Bernhard Starkmann would love it. But would BT?

Howick (0171-284 2614). International Art Consultants (0171-481 1337). Art Contact (0171-381 8655). Gurr Johns (0171-839 4747). London Contemporary Art (0171-351 7696). Davies & Tooth, art consultants (0171-409 1516). Simon Lofting (0468-937 954)