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From “Large and Colorful” to “Small and Black”

Entrance hall of the Artothek in Frankfurt

The artothek of the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt challenges the visitor to a deeply personal encounter with its works of art. And so it follows that some of those who come here to borrow a picture for their workplace discover that their own taste in art suddenly becomes a question that’s not all that easy to answer.

Claudia Schicktanz and colleague open the steel door of the Artothek

Contemporary European painting and photography, pictures from Classical Modernism, or art of the present day: members of the staff of the Deutsche Bank who visit the collection’s storage to borrow a work of art for their office find that there are nearly no limitations to their desires. All in all, the collection comprises the largest stock of works on paper worldwide. The only barrier the visitor to the company artothek is required to pass through is a meter-deep steel door at the entrance of the former client treasury, in which nearly three hundred works are waiting in wooden racks for a new, temporary owner. Here in the building’s cellar near Frankfurt’s twin skyscrapers, two experts are present every first Wednesday of the month to offer advice and practical assistance to those interested in art.

Inside Artothek Frankfurt

Looking for a suitable picture: visitors to the Artothek

Claudia Schicktanz and Tanja Christ advise their banking colleagues in their search for the right picture for their office, one that lives up to their personal expectations. Occasionally, however, the consultation turns out to be more extensive than originally planned: in view of the large selection of artworks, some of the guests are overcome by a justified doubt in their own preferences and disinclinations. “90 percent of our visitors initially inquire into something ‘large and colorful,’” says the art historian Claudia Schicktanz and laughs, emphasizing that the encounters in the artothek can turn out very unexpectedly, even for her. The twenty minutes planned can sometimes stretch out to an hour, during the course of which something “large and colorful” can transform into something “small and black.” While the selection is being discussed and the works viewed, decisions are sometimes made that amaze everyone. “There were even cases where someone picked out works that I never would have placed together,” Tanja Christ, who has been running the artothek for the past two years, says, “but in spite of my original reservations, everything came together magnificently in the end, providing me with a fresh look at the pictures.”

The discussion over what really “fits together” on the wall of an office and both communicates individuality as well as fulfils the representative demands is connected to the question of one’s own identity. “A work of art has to be nature in the perfect lie, a well-considered choice, a mirror of the emotions,” the Rhenish expressionist August Macke averred. Even today, the majority of viewers find the cheerful, relaxed mood of his Old Cemetery in Thun (1914) simply “beautiful.” Thus, the prints of his pictures and the works of Baselitz, Höckelmann, and Penck count among the “top hits” of those works lent out most frequently. The fact that the generation of German painters from the seventies and eighties are so popular in the artothek, along with the names of Classical Modernism, is not only due to the presence of these artists in the collection. Through an everyday encounter at the Frankfurt workplace, styles and art forms that met with resistance at the time they were purchased years ago have become a matter of course. Along with graphic works, etchings, drawings, watercolors, and prints, the artothek also has photographs. An informed visitor can find a photographic work by Bernd and Hilla Becher or a woman’s portrait by Thomas Ruff. Yet despite Ruff’s prominence, this realistic portrait in particular has already been given back several times. Claudia Schicktanz relates that the respective borrowers couldn’t stand hearing the same question anymore: “Is that you wife there in that photograph?”

Photo art: Tanja Christ with a portrait of a woman by Thomas Ruff

Along with the artothek, the rooms in the Große Gallusstraße also serve as a storage space for works being assembled together for the bank’s branches or for works lent out from the collection of the Deutsche Bank and recently returned from various exhibitions. Here, the pictures are systematically amassed, measured, and listed in catalogues or appraised by the restorers before being sent on to their allotted spot. Yet if the prospect of the 50,000 works represented in the collection conjures up an image of huge halls here, then it’s a false impression. To what degree the concept of art in the workplace actually functions becomes revealed in these rather modest rooms, as well: except for the artworks available for borrowing and certain works that are being stored here temporarily, the collection’s stock is spread out over the bank’s locations worldwide. For this reason, extensive storage space is simply not necessary, because the pieces are in constant circulation and are seen on a daily basis – at the workplace or in museums around the world.

Maria Morais