This admission shouldn’t surprise you, but I don’t really like going to the bank. At best, it’s a necessary chore, and an uninspiring one at that. Yet I recently went to a bank of my own volition, stayed for nearly two hours, and enjoyed it. Predictably, I wasn’t there for a sweet deal on my mortgage. Instead, I was visiting the Rabo Kunstzone, the exhibition space of the Rabo Art Collection, one of the top corporate art collections in the Netherlands.
Forbes Magazine recently highlighted some of the world’s best corporate art collections, including UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank, and Progressive Auto Insurance. At their most basic, corporate collections begin with the task of adorning lobbies and office walls, ideally creating and fostering a stimulating work environment. These collections stand out, however, in the ways they go beyond these initial concerns, building rich and challenging collections while often connecting to communities outside their (beautified) company walls.
With about 1,100 works in its collection, Rabobank is just a baby next to these collecting heavyweights (by comparison, UBS and JPMorgan Chase have upwards of 30,000 artworks each; Deutsche Bank, a whopping 57,000). But in spirit and mission Rabobank is every bit as large, situated clearly among the corporate art collections that are doing something different. As a patron of the arts Rabobank engages its own business community as well as the general public through education and inspiration.
Folkert de Jong, Circle of Trust (Mother and Son), 2009, Styrofoam, pigmented polyurethane foam, customized Euro pallet, 195 x 47 x 68 cm; Copyrights reserved, courtesy Rabo Art Collection.
Through the seventies and eighties, the Rabo Art Collection’s main objective was office decoration. In the mid-nineties an official collecting policy was introduced that has continued to evolve with the collection. The initial focus identified three generations of living artists, the “modern classics,” “middle generation,” and “young with proven talent,” represented by artists like Jan Dibbets, Rineke Dijkstra, and Fiona Tan, respectively.
What began as mainly a collection of Dutch artists came to include others living and working in the Netherlands, and, since 2009, key international artists who represent a “qualitative complement” to the collection. A significant recent acquisition, for example, is British artist Yinka Shonibare’s The Pursuit, an artwork that complicates geography and identity and has a unique link to the Netherlands. The work’s colorful fabric, which is typically thought of as traditional West African cloth, is actually Dutch wax cloth, a historically complex material that speaks to the travel of goods, ideas, and people in the global economy.
As the collection evolves, so too does the way the bank showcases its art. Here we find some of the things that make the Rabo Art Collection exceptional. Juliette Jongma, an Amsterdam gallery director who represents a number of Rabobank-collected artists, introduced me to the collection almost two years ago with an exhibition catalogue, before there was a public exhibition space. Publications like the catalogue series Unlocked were the first steps in “unlocking the collection.” When Rabobank built its new administrative headquarters in central Utrecht the executive board green-lighted a dedicated exhibition space. The Rabo Kunstzone, which is free to the public, opened in June 2011 and is a highly visible space adjacent to the main lobby. It hosts two exhibitions a year, one collection-based show and one solo exhibition. Since opening, the Kunstzone has had an estimated 18,000 visitors, employees and general public alike.
Though in some ways the Rabo Art Department operates like a museum, publishing books, curating exhibitions, and maintaining a clear collection policy, Esther Wagemans, Project Manager for Communication and Education, makes it clear that that isn’t the point. While sharing the collection with society is important, enhancing the bank’s business atmosphere remains a central objective. “We are not a museum. That’s not what we want to be,” says Wagemans. “We are not a quiet space; we are also part of the working environment. Our slogan is: ‘Rabo Art Zone – bringing life into art but also bringing art into life.’ This gives a new meaning to the expression ‘a life in the arts’: living and working surrounded by art and making a contribution to the art world.”
Alicia Framis, Cinema with Hospital, Los Angeles, 1999, C-print, 100 x 100 cm; Copyrights reserved, courtesy Rabo Art Collection.
Indeed, bank personnel peer onto the exhibition space from a mezzanine lounge and dining area. “The Screaming Room is [so tall] that employees can still see potatoes when having lunch. I think that’s very amusing,” says Spanish artist Alicia Framis about her artwork made of potato sacks in DailyFuture, Rabo Kunstzone’s first solo exhibition, which is on display through the end of the month.
The DailyFuture publication chronicles the collection’s history with Framis, whom the Rabo Art Department has been following since she won the “Prix de Rome” in 1997 – a prize the bank sponsored at the time – and collecting since 2000. If you look at the directory of the collection’s almost one hundred artists, it becomes clear that developing relationships and strengthening holdings of individual artists is a priority. Nearly every artist is represented by multiple – sometimes up to a dozen – artworks, which often showcase the diversity within an individual artist’s oeuvre. This sort of intensification is mutually beneficial, as is the bank’s choice to work with local, living artists. It creates ties to the local art community and builds trust. Collectors access better artwork when they establish strong relationships and artists aren’t concerned that their work might be deaccessioned during hard times.
Art is a risky investment, and it is something of a misconception that corporations collect art for financial gain. Art is valuable, but it enhances cultural capital as much as it does economic, and preoccupations with financial payoffs do not interesting collections make. Corporations that maintain and execute a clear vision, truly investing in the artists they collect, are best equipped to deal with a mercurial art market. Unique among Dutch banks, Rabobank began as a cooperative of credit unions for farmers, preserving a close link between investment capital and the community. It invests in its members, not mortgage-backed securities. In its collecting policy Rabobank isn’t much different, and its investment in Dutch culture seems to be paying off: some of the collection’s most memorable works are by Guido van der Werve, Charlotte Dumas, and Folkert de Jong, young artists who are now seeing increased recognition on an international stage. Though modest in size, the Rabo Art Collection is big in ambition, and its vision, qualitative approach, and notable public presence make spending time at the bank a little more pleasant.
(Image on top: Yinka Shonibare, The Pursuit, 2007, Two mannequins, Dutch wax printed cotton textile, shoes, coir matting, artificial silk flowers, male figure: 162 x 161 x 200 cm, female figure: 169 x 190 x 140 cm; Copyrights reserved, courtesy Rabo Art Collection.)