Corporatism pervades the art world: BMWs are wrapped in Jeff Koons vinyl, museum exhibitions and art fairs are sponsored by global financial institutions, one mega luxury conglomerate even has an entire museum. It's a simple fact now: money and art go hand-in-hand. Usually, the issue taken up is the cooption of art for financial/political purposes and the impure state in which this leaves art but, frankly, it’s hard to believe this argument is still around let alone received as valid. Not since the thawing of the Cold War has government taken a lead role in sponsoring contemporary art practices—art was left wanting.
In the last decade, the pace of art and money's codependence has only quickened. While cross-promotions between luxury brands and artists are legitimizing for both, anyone outside of that distinct bubble of luxury—artists and spectators alike—were left jilted, shamed, perhaps, to find that an artist who had brought them joy and commiseration could so boldly side with unattainable wealth. It’s a tricky relationship, art and corporatism, but it’s one that will last. The Soviets and the Americans both knew the marketing value of art very well. Art can inspire our emotions and our unconscious faster and more deeply than the best textual rhetoric.
What if we ignore this (false) assumption that art was at some point free from market forces and contractual existence? What if we view art as a relational practice amongst individuals that is constantly surrounding us and accept the adage Life = Art. When someone is paid to interact with a customer in a certain way, is this performance art? It would not take a great logical leap to say, “Yes.”
In this vein, an American bank based in Portland, Oregon, has transformed itself. Over two decades, they have gone from a regional, branch-based bank to a 22-billion-dollar company with ice cream trucks that give away free ice cream. Yes, FREE ice cream.
As an American fucked over by a parasitic banking system throughout my life, I'm skeptical. We're all skeptical. It's second nature at this point: a deep mistrust of anything "financial" that survives on fees of 2+% and pays back interest of <1%. Banking seems rarely more than a great con and yet was the focus of the US government’s largest bailout—a telling sign of how fundamental an industry it is to be sure. But still, we’re all skeptical.
This past weekend, Umpqua made its first major foray into arts exhibitions with EXHIBIT:GROWTH. How it got to the point of hosting art exhibitions is a decades-long journey. Even prior to the latest bank failings, Umpqua knew they needed to do some PR work. Twenty years ago, around the time when ATMs became primary points of consumer banking, Umpqua implemented a new “store” model to fundamentally change what a bank meant for people. Store managers were given great say in how their stores were run, including how they could participate within their community. This community engagement has taken many different forms including hosting stitch-and-bitch meet ups, seminars, open WiFi, and lectures. This approach, coupled with an open and communicative workplace culture, worked. Umpqua expanded and the store model became a norm for the company.
Back to 2014 and art exhibitions. EXHIBIT: GROWTH takes place inside of a geodesic dome at Portland’s Director Park, the exhibition centers on an interactive installation by creative teams Fake Love and Mill+ and features artists Aaron Rayburn, Blaine Fontana, Huy Bui, Michael Murphy, and Tofer Chin. The exhibition concept was born of the same kind of disconnect between the public's faith and the banking system that lead Umpqua to develop a new cultural model for their company. Eve Callahan, Senior VP of Corporate Communications, put it this way: “Money is a taboo subject, like sex, politics, and religion. People are probably more comfortable talking about sex, politics and religion today than they are about money and this really puts them at a disadvantage… Money is at the core of everything we do.”
In order to develop a positive relationship between people and money, Umpqua wanted to get people to physically and emotionally experience growth and potential. Ms. Callahan put the impetus behind engaging artists to transform the public's perception through art thusly: "Artists tackle difficult and complex subjects everyday. That's what they do. They create conversation and inspire people to engage, whether it's with an idea, other people, or with themselves and so we became enamored with the idea of getting artists to help us explore the idea of human potential." To this end, an interactive, kinetic installation was produced that displays unique growth patterns as individuals in front of the screen move their bodies.
Umpqua's foray into the world of art poses an interesting revolution in arts patronage. By considering artists as a vital resource in grassroots marketing that can actively shape the psychological engagment of consumers, contemporary art may just find itself in a more secure place where it can be allowed to grow and flourish as well.
(All images courtesy of Umpqua. A sculpture by Blaine Fontana at bottom)