The art of austerity - the surprisingly close ties between the worlds of art and law

The art of austerity - the surprisingly close ties between the worlds of art and law

Author: JDG Chambers

07 Apr 2011 | 06:38


Combining community involvement with art acquisitions, JDG Chambers discovers there is more to law firm art than what's on the walls


The Adelaide Nature Reserve is a community wildlife garden close to the railway tracks in Camden, North London. Last autumn, graphic artist Lindsay Noble was commissioned to design a mural to be painted over a graffiti-covered wall. An application was placed with the Arts Council for funding, but it was duly rejected.


Corporate sponsorship was the next stop, Noble explains, which is how a team of lawyers from White & Case and bankers from The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) spent a Saturday applying colour to an 'encyclopaedia wall' of wildlife. "It turned out for the best," Noble says. "The law firm had its client day and the nature reserve got its mural. Everyone's a winner."


The Adelaide encyclopaedia wall is an example of the growing trend of young lawyers willing to get paint on their hands as they push for closer involvement in the arts. Community outreach projects are often the beneficiaries of this development.


Two years ago, Maria Vassalos, a project finance associate at Allen & Overy (A&O), took charge of the London office's Artbeat programme. "The initiative invites students from local schools in London's east end to create artwork for our offices under the training of professional artists," she says. Bethnal Green Technology College, the local school partnering with A&O on the project, has seen an improvement in the GCSE grades of the students who participate in the 10-week workshops. An exhibition of their latest artwork is currently on display inside the firm's Spitalfields headquarters.


The students have also built a website to sell mugs, calendars and prints of the artworks. A stall at Spitalfields market is planned as well as a three-day arts festival in the summer, with all the profits being re-invested in the local community.


Abstracting the horse and carriage


Bethnal Green and Camden are a long way from law firms' traditional engagement with fine art, prominent examples of which include DLA Piper's Tate Gallery sponsorship or the National Portrait Gallery's annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. The reasons for law firms engaging with the arts have been well documented. The art collections at firms like Clifford Chance and Simmons & Simmons are meant to inspire staff creativity, impress clients and raise public profiles.


But Philip Herriott, founder of art consultancy Art Search Limited, paints a simpler picture. In the last 10 years he has advised laws firms like Nabarro, Osborne Clarke and Bircham Dyson Bell on buying artworks for their offices. He advised A&O on the artwork for its staff canteen. In his experience, most acquisitions coincide with a change in office or the retirement of a senior partner, when the partnership new blood decides to replace the 18th century horse and carriage paintings with modern art by the likes of British abstract artist Philip Mount.


Law firms set up art committees made up of partners and employees at the firm with an interest in art. Members are shown photographs of promising art that Herriott finds on his tours of art school graduate shows. "They want to edge away from the obvious, toward buying younger artists just out of college," he says. "No-one can guarantee art as an investment, but everyone wants a bit of bang for their buck."


Only nowadays, says Herriott, many of the art committees have been mothballed and law firm demand for art has dried up. It may only be temporary, but it is not difficult to see why. Simmons, one firm that did keep buying during the recession, has been supporting young artists since the late 80s. Coverage of the firm's impressive 20-year-old collection made The City Magazine in 2010 - whereas news of over 70 job losses the previous year received national coverage in The Times.


Post-recession landscapes


During the 90s, Stuart Evans, former Simmons partner and current curator of the collection, started buying up work by young British artists - household names like Hirst, Emin and Hume - all before they went on to Turner Prize-fuelled infamy. But today he reports a shifting attitude toward the art collection. Simmons is no longer buying art for the sake of it. This is in part because the London office is full - though he is currently encouraging the partnership in Amsterdam and Milan to decorate new offices with up-and-coming local artists. More to the point, however, the shifting focus is seeing the law firm link its art collection with its corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda.


Examples of this include an exhibition for last year's Black History Month, which included artworks by Isaac Julien, Chris Ofili and Steve McQueen. "Showing that the firm has a conscience is increasingly important," he says.


Not that the firm could ever be accused of largesse. Even before the recession the annual Simmons art budget was modest - it has remained at £25,000 for 20 years. Evans says the entire collection of 200 artworks is worth under £5m and the firm acquires paintings at the rate of five a year, albeit slightly less in recent years.


As law firm demand drops, the lawyers themselves are taking up some of the art-buying slack. According to Herriott, a number of Nabarro partners asked him to suggest suitable modern art for their own homes after seeing what he had created in the office lobby. Similarly, Evans confirms a rising demand for his expertise among his former Simmons colleagues.


But being hung in a private home can have its limitations for a young artist. "Work should be seen," says Evans, who believes that there are other benefits to being in a corporate collection over and above the proceeds of a one-off sale. "It is quite tough getting past the gallery scene in east London and into big museums. One thing along the way is hanging in a corporate collection where it can be seen by important businessmen, many of whom sit on the board of trustees of the big galleries and museums. It is part of the journey in establishing a career."


Recent acquisitions for the Simmons collection include Juan Tessi and Ignacio Iasparra. Evans frequently travels to Brazil and Argentina looking to give other exciting Latin American artists the opportunity to be exhibited in London. But he says the firm has not forgotten about British talent. In the last year, Simmons bought a work by the visual artist Carey Young, which it has already lent out to two museums.


Art, artists, community: a contemporary triptych


It is easy to forget the personal benefits that the artists receive from the patronage of culturally attuned law firms, particularly when community initiatives and CSR programmes are increasingly framing the way that law firms engage with the arts.


A&O, for instance, posts advertisements on the Arts Council's website requesting proposals from artists for upcoming Artbeat workshops. The positions are paid - a premium for jobbing artists chasing fewer publicly-funded opportunities - and upcoming projects will directly appeal to younger artists as well as include students from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design. "Private investment in the art industry becomes more important in an uncertain economy, especially given the cuts," Vassalos says.


Lindsay Noble graduated from art school in 2008 and says the Adelaide mural gave her the opportunity to work on a project far bigger than she might otherwise have received.


Can you tell what it is yet?


This relationship between law firms and the art industry also begs the question: do lawyers make good artists?


In preparation for the arrival of the volunteer team from White & Case, Noble explains how she had to stencil her design onto the Adelaide encyclopaedia wall, number the sections to coincide with the colour of paint and scale back the detail to ensure that each animal could be recognisable. "It really was like paint-by-numbers on a large scale," she jokes, "but the lawyers made it look easy." Rolf Harris would be proud.