Art for Art's sake

A picture of sperm and chromosomes is an unusual and unlikely work of art to be found on display in a professional office, especially a City law firm.

In fact law firms appear to be helping to reverse the rule noted by the late Lord Pearce “that artists do not live in the purple, they live mainly in the red”.

One firm, Collyer-Bristow, in Holborn, London, has a professionally-designed art gallery run by an in-house 'art panel' and a curator. The next exhibition, on the theme of dance, opens this week.

Litigation partner Reina Maria May explains that with a client-base covering many aspects of the art world, “the gallery was a natural progression for the firm, especially with the sponsorship aspect of such a venture, allowing contemporary artists to bring their work to a wider public”.

As for clients' reactions, May says: “Nine times out of 10, clients will say a work is 'interesting', one or two might ask why a certain piece is on display but that often prompts them to take a closer look.”

The cost of running the gallery is usually offset by sponsorship – for example, Guinness was involved in a recent Irish-themed exhibition. A gallery is seen as a positive way to support the arts as well as contribute to charity.

Edwin Coe is another firm which holds art exhibitions as a showpiece for talent as well as to raise funds for charity.

But for other firms, the acquisition and displaying of art tends to be less formal. City firm Linklaters & Paines, for example, has an in-house 'art committee' which consists of four partners.

And Clifford Chance retains art consultancy Frank/Hindley, which originally advised the firm on acquiring art for its in-house restaurant and other public areas when it moved to its current office. It is also involved in organising events and exhibitions for the firm, giving background information on the works displayed in the practice's offices and generally on art being exhibited in the City.

Choosing art by committee may sound like a nightmare. By contrast, McKenna & Co's director of administration Vera Farrants has acquired art for the firm for the past 12 years. And at City firm Simmons & Simmons, corporate partner Stuart Evans says that even as “a committee of one you have to operate within some sort of consensus. But that can be pushed to the limits – modern art is not tameable.”

In the 10 years as a one-man outfit buying art for the firm, Evans says the firm has bought “no nudes”, but it does have the pictures of sperm and chromosomes by artist Mark Francis, whose work has also recently been bought by the Tate.

Another City firm, Theodore Goddard, has opted to display mainly photographs – by, for example, Henri Cartier-Bresson – in its public areas.

And although work by artists such as Henry Moore can be hunted out, most firms favour work by contemporary British artists or support local artists. The Birmingham office of Pinsent Curtis, for example, recently bought work by local artists from the Royal Society of Arts exhibition in the city.

The budgets tend to be modest, usually four-figure sums. And whether in a gallery or workspace, the art is there to enliven the area – but any increase in value is obviously an added bonus. Art is such a personal matter that often “even a negative reaction from a client or lawyer is better than none at all” – perhaps even to a portrayal of chromosomes.