Wednesday, July 6, 2022 Jul 6, 2022
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BUSINESS Modern-Day Medicis

What happens when the business of business is art?
By Michael Berryhill |

Twenty miles north of Dallas, where only corn fields obstruct the view straight through to Kansas, art dealer Eugene Binder is making a house call. During the last couple of years. Binder’s client has spent more than a million dollars amassing one of the biggest collections of contemporary painting and sculpture in the nation and displaying it in an elegant modernist structure by Dirk Lohan, grandson of Mies van der Rohe. In the dining room is a huge, colorful Frank Stella print. In the halls are works by American masters such as Charles Arnoldi, Helen Frankenthaler, Nancy Graves, and Robert Rauschenberg. Like many important Dallas collectors. Binder’s client has a good sampling of Texas artists such as Vernon Fisher, James Surls, Dan Rizzie, and Nie Nicosia.

The latest acquisition is a massive, marble wall mosaic by the Italian contemporary artist Mimmo Paladino. With his suit jacket off. Binder stands on a chair daubing the edge of the mosaic with gray epoxy. The 1.200-pound Paladino mosaic commanded a hefty price tag, and Binder was the dealer from Deep Ellum who arranged the sale. Clients like this are rare; how often do dealers find someone who bought 450 works of art last year?

Actually. Binder’s client is a corporation, Frito-Lay Inc.. and the sprawling modernist building houses not a wealthy individual, but 1.500 employees who plan and manage Frito-Lay’s $3 billion a year in sales. Under the law. explains the Columbia Encyclo-pedia. a corporation is an “organization enjoying legal personality for the purpose of carrying on certain activities,” usually business. But corporations have long known that a legal personality is not the only one they enjoy. A corporation can have a cultural personality as well, reflected not only in the company’s products and services, but in the art that decorates its offices.

American corporations are estimated to spend as much as $50 million annually collecting art, and this Figure may be on the low side. In addition to collecting, they are spending more than ever on sponsoring exhibitions. The magazine Art in America recently reported that in 1967 American corporations spent only about S22 million on the arts. Last year the figure was $600 million, the magazine estimates, and should lop $1 billion in 1987.

Much of this money is spent on contemporary art, where it can have a tremendous impact, for good or ill, In one year, for example, the Dallas Museum of Art will spend just a fraction of what business spends on contemporary art acquisitions. The museum held seven contemporary art shows last year, but by far the bulk of its efforts go loan from other cultures and periods, areas where corporations hesitate to collect.

Corporate spending can also save a gallery, recalls Murray Smither, one of the most respected, art consultants in Dallas. When he started in the Sixties. Smither recalls, one good corporate client pulled him out of the black hole of despair. When he was the co-owner and director of the now-defunct Delahanty Gallery, he says, approximately half of that gallery’s sales were to corporate clients. Barry Whistler, who worked with Smither and who now has a gallery and art delivery and installation service, echoes the theme. Without corporate clients, much of the art business would be in the dumper.

Corporations today are to contemporary an what the church was to medieval art. but with an interesting twist. The medieval church was the repository of spiritual values in the medieval society. The church commissioned artists to embody its values in their work. But since the 19th century, artists in Europe and America more frequently have been critics of society, which raises some interesting questions: to what extent can the corporation, which usually prizes team play and cooperation, prize the individuality of the ait ist? How much creativity can a company stand, either from artists or its employees’.’ And for whom does the corporation colled-its employees, its public, or its CEO?

Of the many Dallas companies with major investments in art, Frito-Lay. The Southland Corporation, and ARCO are three of the largest. Their varied approaches to corporate art illustrate different answers to these questions.

Frito-Lay knew it wanted art for its new corporate headquarters just as surely as it knew il wanted a physical fitness center, says Terry Fassburg, vice president of public affairs. But how does this “it,” Frito-Lay. know it desires such things? By the example of its corporate parent, PepsiCo Inc., and finally, by the example of the former chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo, Donald M. Kendall, the man who merged snack food and soda pop back in 1965,

White-haired and genial, Kendall smiles from the pages of last year’s annual report beside two of his senior executives. All are wearing conservative suits, but Kendall, dressed in a blue-striped shirt with contrasting white collar and cuffs, has more flair. And no wonder, for Kendall has to be something of an international diplomat as well as a businessman. Presiding over a budget larger than that of many small countries, Kendall has introduced Pepsi to the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.

Kendall was also the instigator of the PepsiCo Sculpture Gardens at the company’s home office in Purchase, New York. The headquarters are a series of seven low buildings by the late Edward Durrell Stone, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Situated among the trees and hanging ivy of what is invariably called a “campus-like” setting are a couple of dozen fine pieces that trace the evolution of modern sculpture from Rodin to the present. Henry Moore, Louise Nevel-son, Jacques Lipchitz, and Henri Laurens are included in the collection. Kendall selects the works personally and supervises their installation.

Similarly, Frito-Lay commissioned a modernist low-rise building spread on acres of greenery. But rather than collect outdoor sculpture, Frito-Lay decided to collect museum-quality contemporary art and founded a committee to get it going. The committee came up with a catch phrase to describe the thrust of the collection: “contemporary international humanism.” an umbrella wide enough to cover almost any art you put under it. (“Humanism,” Fassburg reminds us in his foreward to the collection’s catalogue, is “a philosophy celebrating the dignity and worth of man.”)

A fair enough committee decision, but the essence of committee work is compromise, and Kendall wisely let Frito-Lay know that when it comes to art, quality cannot he compromised. So the eventual power to accept or reject a work for the collection rests with one man, senior vice president John Ewing. Fassburg. working with consultant Sondra Eisenherg of Chicago and with Viart of New York, travels and selects potential acquisitions and presents them to Ewing for final approval. When it comes to a challenging or controversial work, says Fassburg. Ewing usually goes for it.

The result is a collection that is neither predictable nor coherent, but always interesting. A standard bit of advice to corporate art consultants is to stay away from the human figure; landscapes and abstract works are less likely to upset people. But Frito-Lay has lots of figurative work, including a couple of Robert Longo lithographs about corporate life. The Longo works depict a well-dressed man and woman in extremely awkward, even convulsed positions, an apparent comment on the pressures of trying to live a straightforward and upright life in the boardroom jungle. In Peter Dean’s neo-expressionist painting, Warning, a Paul Revere figure charges forth with warnings about political repression, discrimination, and nuclear war. Vernon Fisher’s Simple Malter depicts a peaceful couple on the beach staring out over the water at a mushroom cloud on the horizon.

In many ways, the Frito-Lay collection is more ambitious than Donald Kendall’s sculpture garden. The field of public sculpture is limited to fewer practitioners, and it is harder to make a mistake. Public sculpture is about big images, big feelings, and big ideas. The Frito-Lay collection is more diverse and less homogenous than the PepsiCo collection, with much more room for error. Fassburg and his consultants have seen to it that the most prominent works are placed in areas that get the most traffic. Thus, the board room does not have as spectacular a work as does the company cafeteria.

The Frito-Lay collection represents an investment in its employees, an attempt to get them to stretch and grow. But the company is also shrewdly trying to get the public involved. Il has published a catalogue of its collection and will update it. Corporate employees have been trained as docents to give the public tours of the collection. Frito-Lay has also been ready to loan its works for exhibition, and, in cooperation with another major Dallas corporate collector. The Southland Corporation, had a show last summer in the Piano Cultural Arts Center.

In sheer number of works owned. The Southland Corporation probably leads Dallas. Southland owns at least 2,000 works of art, all of them selected by one man, corporate curator John J. Jasinski. Jasinski came out of Southland’s marketing department in the early Eighties and persuaded the two brothers who run Southland. Jere and John P. Thompson, to give him a free hand to buy art. The result is a collection that is even more wildly fragmented than that of Frito-Lay, and that reflects, I suspect, Southland’s corporate personality.

At Frito-Lay and at many large corporations, only the company can put art on the walls. At some companies, even family photographs are forbidden. At Southland, however, Just about anything goes. A wonderful series of Richard Diebenkorn etchings will grace three sides of a conference room while at one end a framed poster of an American eagle stares down the table. An executive’s office will be overstuffed with an eclectic variety of sculptures. A secretary will have a collection of toy clowns on a bookcase. And no cultural commissar cracks the whip. An executive who has his own ideas about decor does not have to participate in the art program if he doesn’t want to. So his corner of a floor might be decorated with mounted butterflies.

Southland’s current office building might bring nightmares to a museum curator or an interior designer, but the haphazard and eclectic approach has its charms. The Southland Corporation seems to be saying to its employees: “We’ve got all kinds of art, from historic photographs of the Crimean War to acrylic sculpture, but we’re not going to impose it on you.” It will he interesting to see what Jasinski does with the forty-two-story corporate headquarters Southland is building at Haskell and North Central as part of its ambitious Cityplace development. Will Southland impose a degree of visual control comparable to its control of the architecture in the area? Or will it continue to allow a cheerful aesthetic anarchy?

If Frito-Lay and Southland can lay claim to recent successes in corporate art, a sadder vote was sounded recently by ARCO, which was forced to shelve its plans last year to create a center for contemporary arts in its new downtown office building. The center would have been an exhibition space for con-temporary arts in the center of the downtown Arts District. In looking for a director for the new facility, ARCO quickly fastened on Ron Gleason, director of the Tyler Museum of Art, known for his sensitivity in explaining contemporary art and his ability to discover and nourish younger artists. Gleason sold his home and moved to Dallas, only to discover that ARCO was reassessing the project (and everything else in the company, for that matter) in light of the collapse of oil prices. Within eight months Ron Gleason was without a full-lime job. But ARCO did hire him to buy art for its tower and for other buildings it owned.

Gleason assembled an impressive collection at little expense, but did encounter some resistance to the art itself. One employee objected to a tiny figure of a naked child, no bigger than a fifty-cent piece, in a series of James Surls pencil drawings. Rather than have the offending drawing removed from the series, Surls bought back the drawings. Another work depicted death and frightened some employees; it too had to be removed. On the whole the collection has fared well, but ARCO’s commitment to art seems to have diminished after Atlantic Richfield’s chairman, Robert O. Anderson, left the company in 1985. Anderson, a corporate leader in the humanities and a cofounder of the Aspen Institute, created the core of the collection with the late art consultant Herbert Bayer. The faltering at ARCO, especially when viewed in light of the strength of the Frito-Lay collection, underscores the core truth in corporate collecting: the late of the aesthetic vision depends on a powerful art advocate at the top of the pyramid.