Easy Money: The Deal of the Art - TheStreet

Easy Money: The Deal of the Art

Wall Street firms have rediscovered an excellent PR and image-building tool: watercolors, sculpture and art installations.
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Manuel Gonzalez, curator of the

Chase Manhattan Collection

, is giving a tour of the fourth floor of Chase Manhattan's midtown offices. He passes by somber walls splashed with pop art, then ducks into a small dining room. With a mischievous smile, he calmly starts to peel a strip of yellow cabana-striped linen from the walls. Only the sound of Velcro ripping betrays that this is not ordinary wallpaper. It's an installation by the French artist Daniel Buren, called

In the Dining Room

.

Gonzalez continues with his tour through a conference room that has a glass sculpture on one wall by

Dale Chihuly

(a corporate

mainstay, with works at companies ranging from

IBM

to

Liz Claiborne

) and an ancient samurai outfit poised in a corner. He shows off other pieces: a

Cindy Sherman

photograph,

Warhol

portraits, a

Basquiat

drawing that Gonzalez proudly says he acquired for about $1,500, a move akin to buying

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

at the IPO price: A piece by the artist recently fetched $3.3 million at auction.

While the days of spending "oodles and oodles" of money to paper offices with

Picassos

are over, says

Sotheby's

Naomi Baigell, corporate art collecting is far from dead. Sure, 1980s-style collecting and spending has gone the way of the

Lacroix

bubble skirt. Some companies, like

Sara Lee

(SLE)

and

Readers Digest

(RDA)

, have donated or sold works, and Internet startups, with no profits to speak of and office terrain mapped by cubicles rather than corner suites, aren't bingeing on artwork. Meanwhile, others prefer to dedicate wall space to things like product illustrations or calligraphic paeans to the value of teamwork.

But in an age where PR and brand image are crucial, Chase and several other Wall Street firms have decided art collections can play a role in building both. And if you're going to hang something on the walls to motivate employees, it's surely more interesting to look at original art than a framed photo of the chairman of the board.

How Art Happens

But employees shouldn't start measuring wall space for that cute little Dufy that can be written off on the expense report. When it comes to art in the workplace, the CEO is the linchpin, says Sotheby's Baigell, who is vice president of corporate collections. "If he or she is interested in art, it will flourish. If not, it won't go anywhere." In Chase's case, it was Chairman David Rockefeller who began the collection, in 1959. An

Alexander Calder mobile commissioned for the bank's lobby was one of the first pieces.

Eight years later,

Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette

(DLJ)

co-founder Dan Lufkin was so enamored of an anonymous 19th-century work called

Whaler's Flag

that he spent a third of the firm's initial capital on it (curator Margize Howell won't say how much that was). The collection now includes 3,000-plus pieces of Americana, mostly focusing on early 19th-century New York, scattered throughout DLJ offices around the world.

And as management tastes change -- as well as management itself -- so can the acquisitions, says Corinne Shane, owner of

InvestinArt

, a New York-based art consultancy specializing in locating art for businesses including

Spear Leeds & Kellogg

. In the same way that private art collectors buy more as they build second and third homes in Vail and the Hamptons, corporations expand their collections when they open new offices.

Gonzalez is currently preparing to pick art for Chase's new Palm Beach office. He'll choose from about 50 works already in the collection, and work with the building's architect to choose the best ones. "Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but it's always interesting," he says.

They Know It When They See It

Although not every CEO can say what he or she wants when it comes to art, their environment tells a lot, says art consultant Shane. When she first speaks to prospective corporate clients, she's equal-parts architect, brand manager and shrink. "We see the annual report, we look at their furnishings, we ask whether they have dress-down Fridays. We want the flavor of the whole place."

From that initial discussion, she gets a sense of whether the company wants to project a contemporary or traditional image. Forget about asking direct questions about what sort of art they want hanging in the foyer. "They don't know what they like, but they know what they don't like," she says.

That translates into hours spent poring over slides, transparencies and Polaroids together. Only then does she get a feel for how much companies are actually willing to spend. "They dance around it," she says. "If they say $50,000, they think I'm only going to find them things that cost $50,000." In fact, she says, she can work pretty much within any budget.

And just like job candidates, artwork is called in for a final audition. Companies can pay the shipping costs to have works sent. Oils, pastels and lithographs generally are faves, Shane says. And as for the subject matter, the possibilities are pretty much endless, with the exception of nudes or religious works, for obvious reasons.

Good ol' New York City wins out as a subject for many firms. For example,

Schroders

,

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter

and

Oppenheimer Capital

have all purchased works by Violet Baxter, a New York-based artist who uses watercolors, pastels and oils to depict scenes that range in mood from tranquil to frantic. From her fourth-floor studio overlooking the corner of 17th and Broadway, Baxter captures the flow of moving traffic, upstate New York farmers selling organic produce at the Union Square green market, even the haze of pollution. "I'm trying to grab it all and coordinate in a painting," says Baxter.

Most of the time, she doesn't see where her art lands, although she hopes that it's more than simple decoration in the offices and conference rooms where it's hung. But once she did get a note from a private collector who already owned 10 of her pieces. He started working at Schroders, walked into a conference room and saw her work hanging there. "He was delighted!" she says, sounding delighted herself.