Down to a fine art

An increasing number of law firms are collecting quality works of art to display around their offices. Richard Cree asks whether the right image can help motivate your staff

The world of contemporary art, and in particular the headline-grabbing Turner Prize variety – all unmade beds, elephant dung and Blu-Tac – would on the surface have little in common with the world of the typical law firm. And yet when the judges sit down to pore over the works of the four artists on this year's shortlist, among the critics stroking their collective beard will be Stuart Evans, head of corporate finance at Simmons & Simmons. His involvement is perhaps the most high profile indication of the increased importance many law firms are placing on having quality works of art around their offices.
The Simmons & Simmons collection, which Evans has put together over 17 years, includes several works by artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Although driven by Evans' obvious passion for modern art, the collection does have an impact on the way the firm is perceived, says Martin Richards, media relations manager at the firm. “It makes us different. The collection is pretty well known and the works are a great talking point,” he says, adding that his own job interview involved a discussion of the particular work hanging in the interview room.
The presence of works by artists such as Hirst is evidence of Evans' knowledge, connections and ability to spot young talent, rather than a huge budget. Through a commitment to buying the work of relatively unknown artists Evans is able to spread his annual budget of £25,000 to cover seven or eight new works each year. But then a good collection is not necessarily an expensive one.
City firm Herbert Smith claims to have gathered its collection for an estimated cost of £100 per employee. And there is always the possibility that a well-chosen collection, particularly when relatively cheap work by unknown artists is included, will grow in value over time. But the real value for law firms collecting art is not the financial return to be made from discovering the art world's next big thing before everyone else. “It's really all about providing an image for the organisation,” explains Peter Harris, chairman of International Art Consultants/Art for Offices, a company that advises both individuals and firms on the acquisition of works of art. Harris adds that “It's about the image presented to all stakeholders, including staff, clients, investors, and visitors.”

“Through buying the work of relatively unknown artists, Evans is able to spread his £25,000 budget to cover seven or eight new works a year”

For Brighton-based firm DMH, sponsorship of a local arts festival was a route into a long-term commitment to the arts. Marketing manager Bridget Cooper was quick to realise that exhibiting contemporary art in an in-house gallery, reflected the direction in which DMH was moving and differentiated the firm from local competitors. “We've become a modern, forward-looking firm and our gallery, among other things, shows this. This visual statement has helped staff buy into the new culture and given them confidence in the transformation from a high street practice into a leading regional firm with national and international clients,” she says.
Brand image is important for all firms, but is even more important for service firms, where there is no tangible product and the service on offer is hard to differentiate or make distinctive. “What art does is help a law firm to project the image they want to,” says Harris.
Helena Djurkovic is chief executive of InsideSpace, an online art consultancy that specialises in the corporate art market. She claims that having lively, interesting and challenging art around the office says a great deal about the firm. “Quite simply, art exudes confidence. If a company invests in art this indicates that it values its environment, which then becomes integrated into the company's image. To customers it demonstrates 'these are civilised, intelligent people I can trust'.”
Djurkovic claims that the recent surge in interest in corporate art within the legal sector reflects a broader trend towards people taking more interest in the quality of their environment. “Today in public spaces, such as restaurants and bars and in the home, people are more visually aware and more aware of what their interior expresses about themselves. But there is a gap between this and most offices. Most workplaces look similar. Art can make a workplace different. And it can make a difference.”
The higher frequency of people working for some of the time from home has also played a part in highlighting the difference between home and office environments, particularly the lack of good design in most offices.
Corporate art collections are started for a number of reasons, the most common being the move to a new building, the arrival or appointment of a new senior partner and the desire to create a new image or differentiate the firm from competitors.
As Harris points out, even when a collection is started because of an interest of one or two people, firms quickly realise the benefits. “The cost of keeping, motivating and getting the most from employees is very high,” says Harris. And the cost of recruiting staff with all the retraining costs involved can make the investment in a few pieces of art seem minimal. “Staff in law firms often spend more time in the office than they do at home. So it makes sense to make that workspace as appealing and inspiring as possible.”
When it comes to starting a collection, the biggest mistake people make is to buy all the works needed to fill a certain space, sometimes hundreds of works, without any idea of how they will work together, how staff will react and, crucially, how they will work with the building. A more sensible approach is to buy a little at a time, if necessary renting the remainder of the pictures needed. Renting has the dual advantage of allowing pictures to be regularly changed and to gauge staff reactions, building the collection from those works that get the best reaction from clients and staff.
The significance of ensuring that a picture suits the space where it will be displayed is often overlooked. Djurkovic goes so far as to claim that the impact of a piece of art comes as much from how it is displayed as the work itself. “Having an impact is not necessarily about big, brightly coloured pictures. Impact can be long term, with a small, complex picture having more impact as time goes on as people study it and think about it,” she says.
But the benefits of corporate art extend beyond a passive appreciation of the environment. As the DMH case study (above) shows, if used to the full, a collection of art can play a major part in improving internal communications. Art can also be used to engage employees in non-work related activities, which can contribute to a more rounded company culture. For example, Clifford Chance now has a staff art club to encourage and build a greater understanding of contemporary art. So long as the art is of a high enough quality it might also be used to generate business or at least as a focus for promotional activity, says Harris. “There is always the possibility of using the art collection as the focus for client entertainment, so that clients may be invited for an evening when a few new works are added to the collection.”
The arguments in favour of building a corporate art collection would appear to be pretty convincing. As Harris says: “Buying art from young artists helps the artist, is a great way of generating positive PR and in the long term it may even make the company money.”

Quality control

What is the quality of the art in the collection? This is the most important criteria. If the art is not of sufficient quality the collection has no validity.
Does the art collection have an underlying philosophy supporting business objectives? The key here is how well this rationale is communicated across to staff and the outside world.
Does the collection have a clearly defined scope? Unlike museum collections, a corporate collection can focus in depth on much narrower areas of art collecting.
Is the collection well catalogued and documented and is it used for further education? Computer-based cataloguing techniques combine flexibility with the ability to transmit the information via the intranet, to use screensavers featuring particular works and to produce printed catalogues.
Is the collection financially robust and still developing? In an industry where mergers and acquisitions occur regularly, collections often come under scrutiny in terms of shareholder value and need to have a sound history of financial justification.
Source: Art Collecting: the benefits for your business. Prepared for Arts & Business by Peter Harris and Jonathan Flowers

What can art bring to a law firm?

Art can play an important role within law firms as:

  • A device for reminding people about the values and aims of the company
  • A stimulus for creative thinking
  • A visual counterpoint to ever increasing technology in the workplace
  • An opportunity for educating and involving staff in art
  • An opportunity to involve staff in their working environment

Source: Art Collecting: the benefits for your business. Prepared for Arts & Business by Peter Harris and Jonathan Flowers