What you hang on your walls can say a lot about you. In an office environment, carefully chosen art can be an opportunity to subliminally express a company's value to visitors; it is easier than you may think for a painting or sculpture to say 'we're professional but approachable' or 'we are adventurous but dependable' or even 'we'll do an outstanding job but won't charge you too much'. (Well, maybe not the last one.)
A carefully constructed and managed policy on corporate art may sound like an expensive luxury in today's economic environment, but it is one that a number of accountancy firms have embraced. Accountancy firms have had a long association with the art world, most famously Ernst & Young's successful sponsorship of several exhibitions at the Tate Gallery. The art displayed in its own offices, though, has not always matched up.
There have always been isolated examples of accountancy firms embracing the work of local artists, such as the recent exhibition of landscapes by the Sheffield artist Ashley Jackson, shown at the opening of the new BDO Stoy Hayward office in Leeds. A nationally-focused policy of corporate art, though, is still relatively rare and usually confined to the largest firms. E&Y, for instance, has a co-ordinated policy on art displayed at its offices, as does KPMG, which has spent the past few months reassessing its art collection across the UK. The firm has amassed a substantial pile of prints, paintings and sculptures over the years and many of those are now being offered for sale to staff and partners, which will in part help to fund a new collection of much more modern and invigorating art.
'In the past the senior partners have made most of the decisions about the art that was displayed in our offices,' says Martin Deutz, the KPMG corporate finance partner who is also responsible for co-ordinating art across the firm's UK offices. 'The firm never articulated a clear policy when it came to art, but we're trying to do it now. We've acquired an extraordinarily diverse collection of work over the years - there are around 800 prints in London alone, including a number of vintage London Underground posters - but some of them have a faint air of nostalgia about them so we thought it was best to move on.' Deutz, who has an 'amateur interest' in art but no formal training, works with an independent art consultant, Tom O'Neil, in choosing new work for existing office space and commissioning art for other buildings as they are refurbished. The combination of the opinion of an art professional and someone who thinks as 'an informed user of the space' results in an eclectic but interesting collection.
'The hope is that interesting art will contribute to creating an ambiance that is different to a traditional drab office environment,' says Deutz.
'But it's also important that it's not so striking that people spend all of their time at a meeting looking at it. When I'm choosing art I try to adhere to a general principle that the work should be thought-provoking, not in an aggressive way, but in a more stimulating sense. It should be different from what people experience normally.'Talking points
As well as creating a talking point for visitors, Deutz and others believe that art can help create a more stimulating working environment. 'Offices can tend to look the same but art can make a tangible difference. If you are in a people business you owe it to your staff to make their office as interesting as possible.' O'Neil agrees that art has the potential to 'raise the spirits' of people working in an office, as well as communicating a particular message to visitors.
There is also the question, of course, of branding. Is displayed art a way of communicating a brand message? Deutz agrees that branding is a factor, but not an obsession. 'I think that any direct reflection of the firm's statement and values is too literal and insults the intelligence.
We try to choose work that is consistent with the firm's values without ramming it down your throat.' Even so, when commissioning its new sculptures for the London office (see box), the firm spent a significant amount of time thinking how the work might fit in with its brand values. 'We spent a lot of time with the artist, discussing how the sculptures might reflect our values,' says Ian Barlow, London senior partner. He adds that he particularly likes the way the resulting work radiates diversity and energy.
The firm has set aside a budget of around £30,000 a year to fund new purchases, which is boosted by a proportion of the money gained from sales of its legacy art (the rest is given to charity). There is a separate budget for art commissioned as part of a refurbishment, which is seen as an opportunity to 'make a big impact'. Staff are consulted through formed committees to make sure that they are involved throughout the process.
As part of its commitment to work with local charities and communities - as well as taking the opportunity to keep costs down - KPMG tends to source new work from student artists or, sometimes, community art projects.
Its Glasgow office, for instance, underwent a refurbishment recently and several striking prints and canvases were commissioned from the Scottish Association of Mental Health, which uses art to encourage people to express their feelings. And the fact that they came from a charity helps with the firm's feelgood factor.'Art for art's sake
Where KPMG's policy is inhouse, many companies choose to hire external consultants with world-wide experience in finding the right pieces for the right places. International Art Consultants/Art for Offices (AFO) sources and commissions art for companies including PricewaterhouseCoopers, BDO Stoy Hayward and GlaxoSmithKline as well as Mercedes Benz and the London Business School.
Peter Harris, chairman of AFO, says the right choice of artwork 'can provide a clearer corporate image. It also can give increased differentiated brand awareness and can aid the development of new and deeper customer relationships, higher staff productivity and lower staff turnover leading in turn to more income and lower costs hence greater profit'.
Harris says companies tend to look at art when they are moving or refurbishing offices. Money comes from various different sources. As a general rule, it is broken into the following chunks: 30% from building budgets; 30% from corporate affairs; 20% HR budgets; 10% marketing budget; and 10% directors' discretionary budgets.
The benefits, he says, can affect all stakeholder groups at the same time: 'Shareholders, through corporate image, staff, through satisfaction, productivity and retention, customers and suppliers, through unique corporate gifts, and the wider community.'
The entrance hall of KPMG's London headquarters in Salisbury Square shows how art can help to change the atmosphere of an office. Since the early 1990s, the main focal point of the cavernous lobby space had been six large faux-bronze urns, specially commissioned for the firm. While in keeping with a classical style and, perhaps, the serious and professional atmosphere of an accountancy firm, the urns did become the target of some long-running jokes, within and outside KPMG. Legend has it that they were home to the ashes of long-dead partners.
In January, the urns were finally put into retirement and a series of contemporary clay sculptures by the artist Naomi Matthews, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, took their place on four plinths across the lobby. The sculptures, which were commissioned by the firm and took almost a year to complete, show groups of children playing, a leapfrogging woman, and children and adults interacting with dogs. They are far more informal - and indeed colourful - than you may expect from any large corporation, let alone an accountancy firm.
The change was not made without consulting the staff. 'We ran a chat room debate when we started to think about getting rid of the urns, to gauge what the staff felt about them and what they would like to see in their place,' says corporate finance partner Martin Deutz. 'I'd say that about 80% of the reaction of staff to the new sculptures has been positive.'
The sculptures, according to the artist, both depend upon and invite interaction. They were intended to promote debate and discussion and they have certainly achieved that aim. 'The receptionists regularly email me to say that a visitor has liked them,' says Deutz. It is also an invaluable opportunity for a young artist to display her work to a new audience.
'We estimate that at least 100,000 people a year walk through that lobby, including 20,000 visitors,' says London senior partner Ian Barlow. 'It's a great opportunity for Naomi.'