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Corporate Colours

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In the 1970s, when Deutsche Bank started buying art "not categorically for investment but to create a better working environment", it would hardly have thought that its collection would be valued at £200 million a few decades later. Especially since its mandate — with a few exceptions — was to buy art that its own employees could also afford to buy for themselves — currently priced between £3,000-5,000 on an average. Over the years, it concentrated on acquiring works on paper to build a huge collection of 60,000 works in 928 buildings in 45 different countries — India included.

But the interesting thing, according to Alaister Hicks, one of the eight curators who looks after and adds annually to that collection, is that the 60 floors at its headquarters in Frankfurt are named after various international artists. And if you're curious about Indians on that list, there is a Dayanita Singh floor and a Shilpa Gupta floor, while its London office has a commissioned work by Mumbai-born Anish Kapoor in the lobby.

Banks buying art is hardly new — even the lamented Lehman Bros had a collection that was liquidated following its bankruptcy. But in India, corporate collecting is still a recent endeavour, and one where promoter interest and personal collections often cross over. Unlike Deutsche Bank, where committees select the works for offices or institutions, it is still personal interest that fuels corporate collecting in India. Even though they worked with curators, Sanjay Reddy's art collection at Mumbai airport and Namita Saraf's selection of art (with the help of Rajeev Sethi) at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, and Hyatt Regency, Chennai, comes from their personal conviction as collectors, as does Sanjay Tulsyan's selection of works at the office of Tulsyan NEC Steel.

Spillovers from personal collections are usually the genesis for corporate collections. Shiv Nadar wanted Raja Ravi Varma's iconic paintings of Lakshmi and Saraswati from his wife Kiran's growing collection at the HCL office in Noida. Since then, the Nadars have invested in choosing art especially for their offices, as distinct from the personal collection they show at the Kiran Nadar Museums of Art — one of which is temporarily housed in the Noida office complex. From most places in the state-of-the-art building, paintings and installations are visible. The boardrooms and the reception have distinctive art — a mix of the modern and the contemporary. The large Hemraj, for instance, the Samir Aich overlooking the conference tables, Kanchan Chander's Torso in one corner, and works by Gogi Saroj Pal and Pratul Dosh or Francis D'Souza's watercolours. Most of these are artists that Kiran Nadar does not feature in her private museum.

"Increasingly, architects are commissioning site-specific (large) works in their corporate projects," says Sharan Apparao of Chennai-based Apparao Galleries. Ahead of the Formula One races, Sameer Gaur of the Jaypee Group set up a committee to select contemporary art for its Noida facility. At the two Leela hotels in the NCR, the Nairs picked  art as the great differentiator from the competition. Rajeev Sethi was asked to help with the selection for the younger, edgier property in Gurgaon, while the over-the-top Leela Palace in New Delhi looked to the current hot-sellers, from Paresh Maity, Jayasri Burman, Satish Gujral and Laxma Goud to Satish Gupta's installation of a gigantic Surya.

ROYAL TOUCH: Shiv Nadar has Raja Ravi Varma's iconic paintings adorning his HCL office in Noida (BW Pic By Sanjay Sakaria)

Hotels have been the most obvious showcase for art, even though the promoting companies have an interest in art in general. The Taj — and Ratan Tata in particular — have always invested in art, and the group made sure that the damage at its flagship Mumbai hotel in the terrorist attack was professionally restored: it has an enviable collection from M.F. Husain onwards. ITC headquarter in Kolkata has a sizeable interest in miniatures and senior artists, and has Krishen Khanna, Manjit Bawa and others spread across its offices. The Park Group has been engaged with edgier contemporary art and photos, while promoter Priya Paul herself is a collector of prints.

One of the least talked about but interesting collections of corporate art is at Anil Ambani's Reliance Centre, where his wife Tina has curated an enviable collection, from F.N. Souza's and Sakti Burman's drawings to contemporary works of Sujata Kejriwal and Chintan Upadhyay. Tina's annual Harmony art show has helped bring a sharp focus on her collecting, and visitors and office executives are charmed by the extent of art on display.

The Times Group, or Bennett Coleman & Co, has traditionally been one of the few offices in India where massive canvases would form part of executive cabins, sometimes disconcertingly so, in both size and content. It is also one of the few companies that have seen the worth of their collection multiply in value — most publicly when its Tyeb Mehtas broke records at Christie's auctions overseas. Sometimes, though, offices have cared less for art, such as when a Krishen Khanna painting, commissioned especially for an office in Mumbai, was found dumped in the caretaker's godown following the building's sale, probably because it hadn't entered the corporate inventory. At its office in Gurgaon, Bharti Airtel has a selection of inexpensive art in its meeting rooms, but boasts a five-floor mural by Manav Gupta that can be seen from most parts of the building. The employees had joined the artist by painting bits of the mural as part of a  team-building exercise.

There ought to be some merit in the argument that in offices overseen by women promoters, there's bound to be more sensitising to art. Visit the offices of collectors Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw or Rajshree Pathy. That said, Indian banks, where you might expect to see art for at least its investment value, have yet to accept it as an asset value. This is true for even the women-led ICICI Bank or HSBC India.

A stronger interest appears to be in creating institutions where art can be viewed not just by employees, but by the public at large. In Delhi, Kiran Nadar and the mother-son team of Lekha and Anupam Poddar have already created private museums. In Coimbatore, Pathy is poised to take a similar leap as part of an art university. In Kolkata, Rakhi Sarkar is spearheading the public-private Kolkata Museum of Modern Art, while collectors Roohi and Rajiv Sawara are grappling with how to bequeath their extensive collection — one among the best in 20th century modern art — to a foundation.

Meanwhile, there are other younger collectors such as Malvinder Singh who has begun acquiring iconic works of Indian art.  His Atul Dodiya painting that pays homage to both David Hockney and Bhupen Khakhar is one such masterpiece. Like most collectors, he also has current favourite Ravinder Reddy's paintings among his collection. His Religare devotes a small amount of its energies to the promotion of new art through a gallery. It's only a matter of time before some of that collection spills over to the corporate offices and to the Fortis hospitals to create, as Deutsche Bank's Alaister Hicks says, "not a museum but a nicer working environment".

The author is head of exhibitions and publications, Delhi Art Gallery

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 13-02-2012)