What’s art got to do with business?

Elie Khouri argues that collecting art makes business sense in more ways than one

When one learns that Deutsche Bank has an art collection of more than 56,000 works, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, or that business schools invest in building their own art collections, one of the first questions is why. In tough times, it would be easily to define art as anything but a basic business necessity and rather more as an unnecessary luxury or even a frivolity.
So why do close to 2000 companies get actively involved with art collecting? For Deustche Bank and the University of Chicago’s Booth School, the goal is to open people’s minds. In the case of the bank, these people are employees and clients, for whom it organizes tours of its own collection across 900 locations and the many events it sponsors. For the business schools, it’s more about opening the students’ minds to the idea that they can make a statement without being literal or obvious. To them, art is a suitable complement to a challenging curriculum. Harvard Business School’s collection of more than 200 pieces, assembled over the last two decades, is displayed in public areas frequented by MBA students and not an investment destined to be sold.
While corporate art collectors rarely build their treasure with a view to profit from it, some pieces sell at record prices at auctions, like Commerzbank’s sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, a bronze that fetched $104 million in 2010. Chosen carefully, art works will increase in prices over time and can therefore be regarded as an investment and an asset that needs to be managed accurately and actively.
Proponents of art at work find in it a way to enhance the corporate image, nourish the company’s culture, provide depth in its public relations and stimulate its community relations. This has echoes from history, when nobility acted as a patron of the arts, supporting artists and contributing to works of beauty. This includes promoting culture within the society and community in which these companies operate. In our case, as well as in many others, an art collection is an intrinsic part of a company’s Corporate Social Responsibility program.
Art in the workplace creates another conversation between a business and its stakeholders. Event, such as exhibitions, receptions or talks, create a richer layer of interaction and strengthen relationships. Carefully picked artworks displayed in a reception area, waiting or meeting room help build a corporate image and reflect not only its culture but also its success.
The fundamental reason for art in the workplace is provided by many studies: it increases employee and corporate efficiency, productivity and creativity. One, surveying over 800 employees working for 32 companies in the United States that displayed art within the workplace, revealed that it helped reduce stress, increase creativity and productivity, enhance morale, broaden employee appreciation of diversity and encourage discussions and expression of opinions.
A positive and stimulating working environment, beyond making sure the hygienic and basic factors are covered, must be the goal of all employers. The companies that rank high on the lists of best places to work often have art collections and it’s no coincidence. It’s an indicator of how they view the importance of their employees. There are easier, and potentially cheaper, ways to ensure happiness at work, such as creational or fitness facilities, children’s day-care and competitive remuneration packages, but art literally aims higher. It’s about improving the environment and making the office a better and more stimulating place to work and be. In our business of advertising and media, it acts as reminder that beauty and imagination are an important part of life and is an inspiration to think creatively or see things differently. This undoubtedly applies to most, if not all, businesses in every sector.
If investing in an art collection, no matter how small, humanizes the work environment and gives a business a context in the sphere of their employees’ lives and activities, is it really outside the range of a corporation’s normal business activities?

Elie Khouri is the CEO of Omnicom Media Group (MENA)

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