Seagram liquor company and the ancient Mesoamerican civilization of the Olmecs were not obvious bedfellows. But in 1965, a crane operator lowered a colossal Olmec sculpture of a head onto the corporation’s New York City doorstep. The artwork was awe-inspiring enough that its next stop was the World’s Fair, but, for a time, it sat in front of Seagram’s new Mies van der Rohe skyscraper on Park Avenue. Hosting the sculpture was an audacious move on the company’s part. The juxtaposition of the Olmecs’ pockmarked basalt and the building’s sleek glass and bronze exterior made a statement about where mankind had been and where it was going. Also, intentionally or not, it was a pretty epic pun on the phrase “how to get ahead in business.”

Corporations have long had some of the most extraordinary, and surprising, art collections in the world. Even if you don’t have fundamentally warm feelings about insurance companies or financial institutions, there’s no denying that the works owned by, say, JPMorgan Chase, IBM, Bank of America, UBS, Progressive, PepsiCo, the Cleveland Clinic and John Deere — yes, John Deere — have enriched lives and lobbies. Do companies sometimes buy art just to impress clients, intimidate opposing lawyers or engage in a kind of cultural arms race with other corporations? No doubt. But they also buy work to inspire their staffs and satisfy a CEO’s or board’s genuine aesthetic interests in art, from the Olmecs onward. “Corporations are showing fantastic works to the public,” said Nina del Rio, a vice chairman at Sotheby’s. “So, in my view, that’s the great thing. There are bank branches around this country where you could walk in and see a Rauschenberg installation.”

It’s not uncommon for a company’s art to appreciate in value even as winter comes for the economy in general. Says del Rio, “That’s when we see corporations saying, ‘This work that I bought for $5,000 is now worth $500,000 or $5 million. We could be making much better use of our funds.’ Especially if the corporation is in a downturn and considering staff layoffs, how can you justify keeping a $5 million painting on the wall?” In other words, if a piece disappears from a public space, it may be because it’s been too good an investment.

One of the images from The New York Times’ archives seems to be of a random — albeit quite elegantly dressed — couple looking down at the street from the 60th floor of the Chase Manhattan building in New York. But you could argue that the true subject of the photo is David Rockefeller, who is not actually in it. Rockefeller was the godfather of corporate collecting. He hosted the man and woman for lunch that day in 1965 and was also responsible for acquiring the stark, almost hieroglyphic artwork by Kumi Sugai that dominates the back wall. When del Rio was shown the photograph and told that the happy couple was Princess Margaret and her husband, the Earl of Snowdon, she politely said, “How cool.” A second later, however, it became clear where her true passion lay: “But look at that painting.”

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