Is the banks' art in the right place?


The Central Bank has been criticised for seeking to appoint a consultant to oversee its collection. So should banks leave art alone?, asks DAVIN O'DWYER

IN THESE days of hardship and struggle, any act of job creation tends to generate positive headlines, but when that new job is for the role of a consultant to oversee an extensive art collection owned by a public body, the headlines tend to be more indignant than celebratory.

On Tuesday, the Central Bank and the Financial Services Authority advertised a position on the eTenders public procurement website, seeking a suitably qualified art consultant to maintain its art collection, which serves “to enhance and enrich the working environment of its staff and as a means to encourage creativity and cultural diversity among employees and the wider community”.

While it might not be advisable to be quite so conspicuously fostering creativity among bankers, the Central Bank responds that “it is part of the bank’s corporate social responsibility to support emerging artists, especially those in the early stages of their career. The Central Bank is now tendering to engage a part-time, temporary art consultant to assist with the management and ongoing maintenance of the collection.”

While the position might be temporary, the advertisement specifies that the contract is for “three years, with an option to extend for a further one year”. This comes just a month after the Central Bank had to put an end to the practice of paying for foreign travel for the spouses of employees, after it was revealed the bank had spent €67,450 on the practice.

“With cutbacks at the moment, morale is at an all-time low. I don’t think anybody here feels any more edified by having these things on the wall,” says one Central Bank employee. “There’s a load of art on the walls of the canteen, and they frequently use the canteen as a gallery space, with collections from young Irish artists. But there isn’t much art in the general working areas, more of it is in the private offices and meeting rooms.” The employee, however, suggests that it makes sense to hire the services of an expert. “[The art is] an investment, it’s on the balance sheet, so rather than somebody who doesn’t know anything about it doing the investing, you get someone who does.”

The uproar, with Opposition TDs quick to describe the advertisement as insensitive and inappropriate, is reminiscent of the Labour Party’s call for Anglo Irish Bank’s extensive collection of contemporary art to be opened to the public last October. On that occasion, Ruairi Quinn tabled a Dáil question on the matter.

Anglo Irish Bank, perhaps still smarting from that Dáil exchange in October, would only state that “the bank has a long history of supporting the arts”, while pointing out it has loaned work to galleries such as Imma – it wouldn’t divulge the value of the collection, nor any plans for future purchases.

AIB’s collection, numbering more than 3,000 pieces, has been a source of pride for the institution for many years, and a spokesman points out that the lucrative AIB Prize, which supports emerging artists, is now in its 10th year, though he is at pains to point out that the collection’s value is often wildly overstated.

Meanwhile, Anne Mathews, media relations manager at Bank of Ireland, says that “All discretionary expenditure has been eliminated, so there is no more collecting whatsoever”. Bank of Ireland made a donation of 25 pieces to Imma last April.

There is no doubt that supporting the arts is a prestigious form of patronage, as well as a potentially good investment, but does this art actually “create an aesthetically pleasing and stimulating meeting and working environment for staff and visitors”, as the Central Bank’s ad would suggest?

A former AIB worker, who worked in a lending centre, thinks not: “The building I was based in was only there five or six years, and there were only copies on the wall there, prints. Not that we paid much attention to them. All the real stuff was in headquarters.”

A Bank of Ireland employee says: “The only piece I get to look at where I work is a notice board with sports and social notices. Besides, if you ever take a tour of a contact centre, a piece of art wouldn’t work in those places – it just wouldn’t sit well. They don’t look out of place in College Green, though.”

On the whole, then, it doesn’t sound like these collections are doing much to keep the spirits of the nation’s bankers up, but at least one lucky art consultant might soon have reason to be cheerful.