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From Medici to Saatchi: The changing business of art

Ahead of the Joburg Art Fair running from 14 to 16 March in Sandton, independent curator CAROL BROWN looks at the changing face of corporate art collections, what it means for African and South African artists, and the why and how of supporting art.

el Anatsui’s sensational curtainUntil about ten years ago, corporate art collections were hidden behind doors and only shared with employees of the leading banks, law firms and financial institutions. They were mainly purchased for financial investment and to decorate the walls of the offices. Now, walls are disappearing from offices and the art is changing and having to fulfil new roles.

Artworks have become widely publicised assets which are used to brand a company and build internal corporate identity and as part of a wide ranging package of community and social responsibility activities.

There are many reasons for this but one which has recently surfaced is that national art museums are now longer adequately funded. It’s pretty much an international trend and not only applicable to South Africa.

This means that our heritage cannot be preserved by museums and our cultural capital becomes lost as artists seek other occupations or, in South Africa’s case, leave the country to go to places where there is more interest in purchasing contemporary art. So the big corporate collectors now have a great opportunity to fill the role previously played by museums and to become keepers of heritage and patrons of living artists.



Business and arts have been bedfellows for longer than museums have been collecting. In this country museums were only established about a hundred years ago. Before that there were private collectors, such as the Randlords, with people like Abe Bailey. In Europe it goes back to 1400s when the Medici family were great art patrons.

Some international examples of business and arts partnerships are Deutsche Bank, which has linked up with another art involved dynasty: the Guggenheims. This resulted in the Guggenheim Deutsche Bank in Berlin, which is part of the Bank premises and is one of the major contemporary art museums in the world. They own 53 000 works which are being exhibited in 75 countries under the Bank’s auspices.

The JP Morgan Chase Art Collection, which was founded in 1959, now numbers 30,000 works distributed through 450 global locations. The Tate Gallery in Britain was founded by the sugar company Tate and Lyle.

Locally, MTN have a very significant collection. So does SABC, Standard Bank and Absa. First National Bank is putting their money into sponsoring art events such as FNB Craft Awards and the forthcoming Joburg Art Fair.

Why do we need to collect and support art?

Collectors have always been around. Probably the most famous of them was the 14th century Medici family, who made Florence in Italy the beautiful city which it is today.

Artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and the many architects who were responsible for the city were sponsored by the family, who were one of the wealthiest in the world at that time and were major merchant bankers.

Today, some six hundred years later, the top collector is another larger-than-life character, Charles Saatchi. He was born in Iraq and, together with his brother, came to London and formed the highly successful ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi. The agency shot to fame when they handled the ad campaign for Margaret Thatcher which won her the premiership.

He started collecting contemporary art in the seventies but made his most spectacular coup in the early nineties. He walked into a dockside warehouse in London where a group of students from Goldsmiths College in London were holding their end of the year exhibition. He stepped out of his green Rolls Royce, walked in, took a look and bought up the whole exhibition of the class of unknown artists – of course at student level prices. Those artists are now the most collectable and highly priced in the world.

Where does African art come in?

Recently the highest price ever achieved for a work by a living female artist was for a painting by a South African artist, Marlene Dumas, which sold for R23 million. A recent auction of South African art at Bonhams in London saw South African artists like Maggie Laubser, Irma Stern, Gerard Sekoto reach way above their top estimates. Most of the works are being purchased outside of the country. There is a new international trend for works from emerging markets. These are China, India, Brazil and the African continent.

African art is big news internationally. Last year, at the most influential art event in the world – the Venice Biennale, Africa was invited to have its own pavilion for the first time in the show’s 112 year old history. The continent’s arrival could not be missed – the ancient Palazzo Fortuny had a colourful curtain hanging from outside its weathered stone walls. But this was no ordinary curtain – it was made from the aluminium labels of wine bottles stitched together with copper wire and draped to resemble ancient Nigerian royal fabric.

el Anatsui’s curtain

Nigerian artist el Anatsui’s sensational curtain of wine bottle labels

The artist is Nigerian veteran, the internationally renowned el Anatsui. Then the prestigious Silver Lion Award for Lifetime achievement, given by the Biennale, went for the first time to an African – Malick Sidibé – the Malian photographer. And that was not all – the world press gave high prominence to the hotly debated and disputed choice of a private collection to represent the continent. So, Africa stole the show.

In the last ten years there have been a large number of major museum exhibitions concentrating on contemporary African Art. They have been shown in Paris, London, New York, Berlin and other major cities but not one of them have ever come to this continent.

Serious collectors and museums all over the world have now discovered the art of Africa and are vying with each other to own it. It has led to a situation where many of our artists have left these shores to seek greener pastures overseas where their works are fetching high prices and they are achieving fame and fortune. We also lost out during the apartheid period and are now having to buy back art which we let slip through our fingers. It’s important to make sure that art from Africa is represented in African collections.

Money might seem to be the obvious theme of the Saatchi story. And yet, when it comes to collecting, money has almost nothing to do with it.

Art collectors do not collect art to make money. They collect art because they have money and want to turn it into something else. That might be respectability – the longing for legitimacy that drove New York’s robber barons to pour dollars into august high culture. Elton John is a great art collector and so is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It might be the desire to participate in creativity. But, more often than not, it is power the collector craves. The power to make and break reputations, to influence museums, to establish critical consensus, to change history.

How do you start collecting and what do you do with it

Art is a big investment and a serious one, not only in finance but also in lifestyle and preserving heritage. So, collecting it, one needs to be informed.

See as much as you can, visit exhibitions, read art journals, watch TV programmes and consult experts. The Joburg Art Week presents a one-off opportunity to see a wide range of contemporary African art in a concentrated space and time.

There are 22 galleries from different parts of the world exhibiting a total of about 100 works. Then there is a curated show by one of the world’s top African art curators, Simon Njami, which will feature about 50 different artists.

The whole city has come to the party and the JAG is showing Spier Contemporary, the Standard Bank Gallery will be showing Marlene Dumas. Other galleries are all concentrating on African contemporary art.

So rule one is get informed and know what you like.

When building a collection it’s also often a good idea to specialize in a certain area. For example, it could be works on paper, or photography, sculpture. It could relate to your business; if your clients are mostly women, you could collect women artists or, if they are young , up and coming artists could be your area of speciality.

If you are investing, it is essential to seek professional advice.

There are many qualified curators around who can advise and help seek out the artworks and, even more importantly, guide the direction of the collection and monitor the collection.

Artworks need looking after. One consults with accountants about how to look after your money, so the same should apply to your art assets.

  • Carol Brown is former curator of the Durban Art Gallery and currently an independent curator and part-time curator to the art collection at the Constitutional Court in South Africa. This article is adapted from a talk hosted by Fitst National Bank Commercial.



One Comment, Comment or Ping

  1. Thank you for this article. We enjoyed reading it.
    Charles Wildbank and Mary McGuire

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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