On the wall of meeting room 31, on the third floor of Simmons & Simmons’ City office, a muzzled pit bull terrier stares out, taut with aggression.
The photo, Abigail Lane’s For His Own Good, is one of Simmons’ art curator Stuart Evans’ more mischievous choices – a comment on commercial law firms’ masculine culture – and one he has had to fight to keep.
“The head of HR said I should take the picture down,” says Evans, “but I justified it by saying that [the firm] was still, at the time, a male-dominated business, and she just replied, ’Oh, but that poor dog!’.”
Try as you might – although there is no reason why you would – you cannot escape art at Simmons. It is everywhere: in meeting rooms, the halls and even in the canteen, where a Damien Hirst painting (pictured above) occupies almost an entire wall.
The firm, at the behest of Evans, who retired as a corporate partner in 2008, was one of the first to buy and display contemporary art. It now enjoys the reputation of having one of the finest collections in the City and is famed for supporting the so-called Young British Artists (YBA) scene, of which Hirst and Tracey Emin were a part, before it exploded in the late 1990s.
Pressed to put a value on the collection, Evans says it is worth between £2m and £3m, but the firm does not see art as an investment. It has always been about promoting young talent.
“I began collecting for myself in the 1980s and suggested to the firm that they could make a differentiating statement if they started putting up contemporary art,” recalls Evans. “Now if you go into an investment bank it’s a given that they’ll have contemporary art on their walls, but no one else was doing it back then. That’s why we have a such a good reputation – because when we started it was groundbreaking.”
That said, the value of one piece, the details of which Evans remains tight-lipped on, was too great too ignore.
“One piece of work became so valuable that it didn’t make sense to keep it,” says Evans. “These aren’t museum conditions [at the firm] and a person could lean against the wall and damage it – then we’d feel a bit stupid.”
Evans, who was on the panel of judges for the Turner Prize in 2001, says his interest in art goes back to his childhood in Newcastle, when his great uncle would take him
“I started to realise that artists see the world differently and if you engage with them it can be incredibly rewarding,” he says.
His passion was such that even as a corporate partner in the 1980s he would still muster the energy to go to some smoke-filled gallery in the East End at 10pm to check out an artist.
It was on these visits that he met Hirst and other young British artists – who became known as the YBAs – and began collecting their pieces. Evans even drafted the occupancy agreement for Hirst’s first solo exhibition, In and Out of Love, in 1991, and advised Emin on a studio move, the latter paying for the legal work with a work of her own.
“It was obvious to me who we should be buying,” says Evans. “It was obvious that something was happening. I grew up in the 1960s and back then I was aware of the coming together of football, fashion and art, with Twiggy, George Best and David Hockney. I saw something similar in the 1990s with (Alan) Shearer and (Chris) Sutton, Kate Moss and Damien Hirst.”
Evans says that these days he is focused on putting together exhibitions that make sense of the issues around him. One of the most recent was a response to the global downturn called Instability: Art Interrogating Crisis.
It is clear that collecting art for Simmons has been a labour of love for Evans, but he believes the firm has enjoyed fringe benefits too.
“Having a collection that’s significant can work in a firm’s favour,” he explains. “We have some anecdotal evidence to suggest that people have joined the firm because they thought it was an interesting place to work and not pompous because of the art.”