In September 2008, the Lehman Brothers bubble burst. The giant whoosh of bad credit bets blew from lower Manhattan and took down neighborhoods across the country. As the winds died down, the insolvent investment bank announced it would be auctioning off one of the few remaining assets that apparently still held some value: its corporate art collection.
A number of the big-ticket items in the 3,500-piece collection went under the hammer at Sotheby's in New York in September. Lo and behold, not only did the art retain its market value, select chunks of it appreciated considerably. This included works by Chinese painter Liu Ye, British sculptor Anish Kapoor and American painter Julie Mehretu. The $12.3 million total haul from that sale went directly to creditors. That's pocket change compared to the billions in Lehman Brothers losses. But the art may have been the only company asset to escape Lehman's tainted touch.
In Atlanta, corporate art collections are as much a fixture as corporations themselves. Coca Cola has one. So does Atlanta law firm Arnall Golden Gregory. Megalawyers King & Spalding, too. And just like the Lehman Brothers collection, most Atlanta corporate collections stay out of the public eye.
That explains why they're largely a black box to many artists and laypeople, even though they're a major part of Atlanta's art economy.
The King & Spalding collection is a case in point. Bob Steed, who's still with the firm, started the art collection in 1970 when he got sick of looking at bad paintings of fox hunts hanging in lawyers' offices. The place needed some culture, and the firm hired Lamar Dodd — as in UGA's Lamar Dodd School of Art — as its first art consultant. Dodd began by recommending, well, a Lamar Dodd painting. With that out of the way, he began amassing works by local and regional talent into an 800-piece collection that now rivals many of Atlanta's public institutions.
Today the collection is under the stewardship of Anne Lambert Tracht who's been curating the firm's 15 floors of art since 2005. Tracht is one half of ConsultArt, Inc. (The other half is her mother, stalwart Atlanta curator Marianne Lambert.)
Local artists Carolyn Carr, Lloyd Benjamin and Kojo Griffin are all represented in the collection. A gigantic Heather Weese biomorphic abstract painting greets visitors coming out of the elevators on the 37th floor. Painter Todd Murphy's in there and a Nellie Mae Rowe hangs modestly in a conference room.
Many of the works were acquired in the go-go days when "subprime" described beef rather than mortgages. But times changed fast. Like many corporations, King & Spalding started hurting and layoffs hit the firm in 2009.
Under those conditions, art acquisition slid down the priority list. "Employers have to be sensitive to the appearance of spending money," Tracht says.
This put King & Spalding and other corporations in a bind: For a relatively small amount of money, corporations can support local artists and can continue their own mission of creating a cultural archive. But spending even a little bit of money while a paralegal cleans out her desk doesn't look good to anyone.
It's doubtless a hard choice. Atlanta corporations play a key role in the preservation of local culture and that should not be taken lightly.
Of course, corporate collections don't lead the art world, they follow it. They prefer the tried-and-true to the edgy and new. But they're stable and rarely sell off works, which means they often become a resource to museums and art centers seeking items by specific artists. Over time, they can become one more way to keep a record of art made in Georgia.
Now is a critical time for Atlanta's corporate collections. According to Tracht, most corporate budget projections for 2011 have already been submitted. But she adds that at this point in the calendar, "there's usually still room for negotiation."
The frozen economy is starting to thaw. Tracht is beginning to see business pick up and more corporations think about art again. Barring another Wall Street windstorm, corporate collections will once again be a viable option for Atlanta artists.
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