Mary Findlay is UK Curator for one the largest, if not the largest, corporate art collections in the world. Curator for Deutsche Bank and based in London, Mary works for an organisation that genuinely believes in the power of art to shape our future, inspire and innovate.
For the past 30 years Deutsche Bank’s cultural activities have been focused on promoting art through building its own substantial collection, its exhibitions and its joint projects. As well as housing its collection throughout its various offices, in April 2013 it opened the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle as a platform for contemporary art in Berlin. Presenting four top-class exhibitions a year, the focus is on the Deutsche Bank Collection and on cooperation projects with international partner museums, cultural institutions and with independent curators.
Whilst the concept of the collection, which started in the late 1970’s, concentrates on works on paper and photography by international contemporary artists, the bank isn’t adverse to the odd sculpture or two and the reception area of the London headquarters features large artworks by Keith Tyson and Damien Hirst, as well as major sculptures by Anish Kapoor and Tony Cragg.
So how does one become Curator of such a prestigious art collection? PSC visited Mary at the Winchester Street office in London to find out. The following is based on that interview.
Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre: Deutsche Bank was the first supporter of PSC back in 2012 and we are proud of our on going relationship with the organisation. Could you start by telling us how your own relationship with Deutsche Bank began?
Mary Findlay: I’ve actually been here for 18 years now. I started out by working for two other blue-chip companies, McKinsey and Co. and Goldman Sachs, not in art but in admin. I didn’t go to university straight after school. However, after working for a few years I realised the error of my ways and so went back and studied for an History of Art degree at Birkbeck University. This was whilst I was working so I studied over evenings and weekends. It was during this time that I left Goldman and started working for the mad Italian art magazine Flash Art International. I worked for them for about a year to eighteen months and then pretty much as soon as I finished my degree I got the Curator job for Deutsche Bank.
PSC: Wow, so your role and the collection have really evolved together?
MF: At the time I came in we had about 500 pieces in London. We now have about 4,000. It started off that I was just doing the basic admin for the collection and the role and the collection has developed from there. At around the same time Alastair Hicks was also recruited as the advisor to the collection.
The collection has grown partly because the bank has grown and also because we took over some companies who also had art collections of their own. We’ve been really lucky from a purchasing point of view. We’ve had quite a lot of scope and flexibility to buy some really interesting works.
PSC: The collection must have been a very different beast back then?
MF: It all started when, in the 70s, we moved into a very antiseptic new building in Frankfurt. It had two towers with about seventy floors in each tower. So the concept was developed to have an artist on each floor and to name the floor after the artist. The works bought at the time were very Germanic, unsurprisingly. The bank has grown a lot in the last 15 years and as a result of that the collection has had a chance to grow and expand and do some quite impressive things. We now have nine buildings in London for example, with 10,000 people working in the UK alone.
Today, as well as the UK team there’s a big team in Frankfurt. There’s one person who is responsible for exhibitions, another who does the loans and another who works full time on the communications for all the different events and projects we’re doing. And we’ve also got the KunstHalle in Berlin, which is an exhibitions space. We run a diverse programme. It’s not just about the art on the walls.
PSC: Many people reading this interview will never have had behind the scenes access to a corporate art collection. Can you tell us something about why Deutsche Bank sets such store in fine art? What is it about art that is so appealing? And to be blunt, is the main focus ultimately to build up an asset base?
MF: No, although it has become a big asset base. The focus is to bring creativity into the workplace. We have to spend the bank’s money wisely, of course, but it’s always been much more about investing in the art of our time.
It’s easy for the likes of you and I to be in the art world as that’s where we work but if you’re a banker who is at their desk doing 70 hours a week, you may not get as much opportunity or time to engage with what’s going on in the cultural environs around you. But having this exposure and environment does benefit staff immensely and so we make it easier for our workforce to engage by bringing art to them. Our employees get to feel like they are walking into a gallery every morning. Maybe because of something they’ve seen they decide to visit Tate, or they join the in-house art club, which provides behind the scenes access and bespoke events.
Sure, the collection started out as pictures on the walls, as ‘decoration’, but it was always about prioritising well-being. It’s only now that we can look back across the collection and see the full value. People feel proud. People no longer say we should sell off the whole lot and make some money! It has become part of our brand.
PSC: Our impression is that the collection is focused on well-resolved work. It seems very much established in terms of its aesthetic regimes.
MF: Well, you’ve actually just walked through probably the two floors in the building that house the most art by really well known artists, some of which we’ve had for a very long time. But actually you’re wrong. We’re not only looking for that. We’re also interested in things that are more emergent. One of the biggest challenges for a corporate collection is that you don’t want to look like a hotel. You want to be challenging without being upsetting. And we do have a lot of emerging, lesser known artists that you may not immediately recognise.
PSC: We know the collection’s focus is works on paper but we also know you have some sculpture in the lobby. How do you make acquisitions from sculptors, whether 2D or 3D?
MF: We don’t buy many sculptures but as you say, the reception lobby requires them and likewise in a couple of other locations around the world. The Cragg and Kapoor downstairs were both bought a long time ago. What is fascinating is that they’ve become real focal points. People love them.
PSC: And 2D works? Would you accept drawings from sculptors to have in the collection?
MF: Absolutely. One of the reasons we love works on paper is they are an instrumental part of the creative process. We enjoy the fact that the drawings tend to be the means to the end, rather than the end in itself. They hold the potential.
PSC: What about building relationships with artists you collect?
MF: It varies. With some artists we have a close relationship and other times not. We have an Artist of the Year Award and have a close relationship with the winners. Other artists, it depends on how we came across their work, if we met them through a dealer etc. It’s fluid. Case by case.
PSC: Can we move on to ask you about your relationship with Frieze Art Fair? You have been the lead sponsor for a number of years now. Can you tell us how this came about?
MF: Frieze approached us looking for a sponsor. It was a new idea, ambitious, something that had never been done before. The first time anyone had gotten permission to set up a tent in the middle of Regent’s Park. The product was good. The organisers had pulled off something quite unique and so we felt it was the right thing for us to be supporting.
There was still some trepidation within the bank, though, a nervousness of sponsoring something so contemporary. We had no idea it would take off the way it has. The first year wasn’t especially well publicised but in the second year the press and profiling was really great. We had no idea of the global pull it would have to the capital either. It was a hope; it had all the elements to. It was also a perfect fit with the ideals of the collection, our focus on collecting contemporary artists from the last five to ten years. It’s of course great for client entertaining and we have our own lounge, within which we create our own exhibition linked to the collection.
PSC. Have you noticed any current trends in the art market?
MF: Well, in regards to buying habits, a lot of people are trend focused, that’s for sure, though I don’t think ‘trend’ is quite the right word. They want to be seen to be buying the right things, from the right artists, so they let the market help devise their taste rather than their taste driving the market. This means the money mostly falls into a handful of artists’ pockets. It’s difficult, as you know, for the emerging artists coming through. There’s always a lot of money for the artists that have made it through to the top galleries. Interior designers, who are big purchasers of art on behalf of their clients, and collectors directly, will always want to be seen to be buying the artists from these galleries.
Trends, hmmm, there is certainly a trend to major photography and video work. I’ve also seen more interactive pieces in recent years. People are really interested in the tangible stuff. I’ve just been looking at this Jordanian artist who has created this map that is magnetic and so you can play with the borders and boundaries by moving pieces around. It’s interactive, it’s physical, it has a message and so it appeals on a number of different levels in a way that only sculpture can really do.
PSC: You’ve mentioned collectors coming from a more global spread and presumably this is the same for artists? How do you identify who to collect and where do you look for them?
MF: Deutsche Bank looks at interesting artists from all over the world. A lot of the emerging economies have really great artists coming through, particularly African and Middle Eastern, if you forgive the generalisation.
With social media and online you can follow much more easily what is going on globally rather than just locally. You can hear of a great show in Vienna through Facebook and keep an eye out for when an artist will be in London and so go and see them. Art fairs have also changed the shape of things. They’ve opened up buyers to more artists.
This really is not news, though. The art world is so global these days. It’s not a London thing, or a UK thing. It’s not a New York thing, or a Paris thing. There are a lot of artists coming from all over, from the far-flung corners, all sorts of places and countries we might not have seen in the past so frequently. Perhaps it’s that I am more aware than I was, I don’t know for sure, but it seems that as countries are getting wealthier, they’ve got more money to put into their art schools – whether it is the students themselves or their governments paying – and so you’re seeing a really good quality coming out of countries we just weren’t seeing before. This of course means there’s more competition than there ever has been for artists trying to make a career in art.
Mary is also Co-editor of Art Works: British and German Contemporary Art (Merrell Publishers, 2001).