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Where have our Rauschenbergs gone?

“I function as a bridge – I mediate between contemporary art and the people who work here,” Liz Christensen says about her work with the collection of the Deutsche Bank in New York. In an interview, she reports on the work she does for the collection and her contacts to the city’s art and gallery scene – and she reveals why the staff especially like Robert Rauschenberg.

Liz Christensen 2003
Foto: Hajoe Moderegger

Liz, you're in charge of the art collection of the Deutsche Bank in New York. What do you do, exactly?

Liz Christensen: I'm involved in coordinating the art program here in the building, which is divided into two areas. On the one hand, the work consists in coordinating the maintenance and hanging of approximately 2,000 works of art in the New York collection, which is distributed among six buildings. Under the motto "Art in the Workplace," each floor is furnished with works of art. I also coordinate the hanging and the events in the gallery. Once each year I curate one of the exhibitions shown here. And, around twice each year, we present international exhibitions of works from the collection of the Deutsche Bank in The Lobby Gallery, in close cooperation with our colleagues in Frankfurt.

How long have you been working here?

I've been with Deutsche Bank since 1994. Since that time, the collection has grown considerably.

Does the Deutsche Bank have a budget set aside for art-related activities, meaning that you all have to compete for a share – the Fine Art Department with the people who organize the cultural sponsoring, for instance – or do you have your own budget, regardless of whatever large exhibition the Deutsche Bank decides to sponsor?

No, it's all separate. Sponsoring is usually the job of the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation. Mine is more an operational budget for ongoing costs, for the art on the walls and the exhibitions in The Lobby Gallery. Sometimes we have the opportunity to work together with other departments; for instance, the next exhibition will be with Stanley Greenberg, a Brooklyn-based photographer who received a stipend from the bank in 2002. This is a fellowship financed by the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation and awarded through the New York Foundation for the Arts. We'll be showing Stanley Greenberg's new work in The Lobby Gallery, and he'll be coming here to speak about his work. In addition, he has a new book coming out soon. By the way, the fellowship program has been in existence for three years now; the New York Foundation for the Arts has taken over the task of administering it.

The fellow obviously doesn't have to be a German artist?

The only requirement is that the artist is a resident in New York. Nationality is not an issue.

The image of the Deutsche Bank is becoming less and less German and increasingly that of a global institution. Is this reflected in its cultural activities, as well? Or does the bank still see itself as representing German culture here in New York? Does it cooperate, for instance, with other German cultural institutions in the city?

Because we show works by German-speaking artists, we certainly represent German culture – both in the bank and in the gallery. The original idea lying at the heart of the collection was to promote the cultural exchange between Germany and the US. Back in the seventies, the Deutsche Bank in New York began as a branch of a German bank, but over the years the bank has grown and merged with other companies. Here in New York, the Deutsche Bank is no longer merely perceived as a German bank, but a financial institution with activities occurring worldwide.

In this sense, the collection in New York initially showed contemporary German art alongside American art. And this continues to predominate to this day. But while the bank has grown and merged with other companies, the collection has broadened and expanded to include this international spectrum. Today, we also have artists from Latin America and Asia in the collection, such as for instance Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Gunther Gerszo, Nam June Paik, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Alioune Ba.

Are there differences in a collector's work depending on whether he or she is working for the collection of an international company as opposed to one of a private collector?

Yes indeed, it's a huge difference – especially when the corporate collection becomes part of the working environment. Here, every floor is furnished with a particular selection of art, and very different people have to live with it. I play the role of a bridge – between contemporary art, which can be difficult and sometimes even somewhat prickly – and the "everyday" people who work here, whether they're guests or employees. We offer tours, and we have an internal website profiling the works exhibited in The Lobby Gallery or in the collection. For us, it's simply a part of our job to impart a knowledge and understanding of art to our staff.

Do you also offer lectures or seminars?

We do, although I wish we could do more of this. We hold lunchtime lectures and tours occasionally, and around five times a year we conduct tours of the collection for our employees. Two weeks ago, Holly Block gave a very interesting lunchtime tour of the current exhibition, Dreamspaces/Entresuenos, along with Javier Tellez (more here), one of the participating artists, who has created a very thought-provoking site-specific installation in the window.

What are you looking for when you select works for New York?

First of all, we're looking for high-quality works that primarily reflect the ideas and developments on the current art market. The fact that the focus of our collection is works on paper narrows it down, as well. In addition, the Deutsche Bank exclusively collects art after 1945, which is a long period by now, but is still considered to be contemporary art. We're also trying to focus on certain themes when we select work for individual floors in order to have an organizing principle the people who work there can recognize. There is a floor dedicated to photography, a floor with drawings by sculptors, and another one that has to do with various ways of representing the human body. And we're also working on new themes for our building on Wall Street, where we're moving to this year. This will be a great opportunity to expand our spectrum of subjects and maybe have some artists added to the collection whose works demonstrate current movements in art. Thinking in terms of themes helps to decide on acquisitions.

Are there limits as to what you can include in the collection?

Yes, there are. We don't want to scare anyone off, we don't want to be hostile towards any group or organization, but that's about it. We do have some nudes, and colleagues have told me that this is rather unusual for a corporate collection.

What are the reactions to the project "Art in the Workplace?"

I get a lot of feedback on the shows in the Lobby Gallery as well as on the works on the walls. Some of the staff even develop possessive instincts concerning "their" artwork. For instance, when a Robert Rauschenberg series of works were brought to Zurich for the new bank building there, I got phone calls and e-mails demanding to know what had happened to "our Rauschenbergs"– it was a very popular Pop Art piece, a kind of landmark that the staff knew. When a group or department is moving, they often call me and ask if they can take the art with them to their new office. I can't always comply, because there's usually thematic artwork already in the area they're moving to. Of course, the hanging has to be changed once desks get moved around. I wait until this is complete, and then I make a plan as to where to hang the pictures.

Generally, people are very interested. As bankers, of course they're also interested in the value of a work of art. They ask questions, they're curious, and once I start explaining, they want to know more. Sometimes, of course, they also complain about what's hanging in front of them. We change this whenever we can – there's no good reason for making people unhappy with art. But, in general, the staff are proud of the collection, and also of the fact that it's rather progressive, a little edgy, and above all very contemporary. I believe that it opens up your mind when you're confronted with art, and the reactions to our "Art in the Workplace" concept proves this.

Does the New York collection stand on its own, or is it part of the worldwide collection of the Deutsche Bank?

It's part of the worldwide collection, which consists of almost 50,000 individual pieces. Altogether, the collection of the Deutsche Bank is the largest corporate collection in the world. Each individual part of the collection, though, has its own separate identity.

What are your connections to the New York art world – do you feel yourself and the collection as being part of it?

Absolutely. I go to the galleries regularly, to artists' talks, museum exhibitions, and art fairs. I really try to stay on top of things. There's always something going on here, and I feel very much a part of that world. Besides, good contacts to the galleries are indispensable for our exhibitions.

Do you know how the public reacts to the exhibitions of the Lobby Gallery?

The Lobby is a unique space, both public and private at the same time. People can wander in from the street, although the security guards are clearly visible. Because of its high ceilings, the space is cavernous, divided by panels. A certain logistics are required to conceive exhibitions for this particular location. I don't really know what people who visit our staff think about these pictures, but I do know that they look at them. We have 500 visitors each day to the bank, so the number of people who come to see the shows can't be all that low. Many people come on the weekends, as well, even though we don't advertise much. We issue press releases and publish listings. We occasionally get reviewed, and that's great. The exhibitions are mainly for the benefit of the people who work here. If other people come to see it, that's wonderful. But it's a side effect.

Do you work with local art institutions?

Yes, we do. Three of our six exhibitions each year are in collaboration with local art institutions. For example, we're currently working together with the Museum of Arts & Design to feature a show this summer called US Design from 1975-2000. For this show, The Lobby Gallery will be displaying architectural models by renowned architects such as Steven Holl, Peter Eisenman, Maya Lin, and Robert Venturi. We've also worked together with the Guggenheim on a show of early Modernist works from their permanent collection, we've done several art projects both with Creative Time, a public arts organization in New York, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. The current show in the gallery is a collaboration with Art in General, a downtown arts non-profit. All this is an attempt to reach out to the art world here. And I think it has a broadening appeal to the people who work here.

What is your next project?

Moving the entire building down to Wall Street! Which is a real challenge, because the lobby is covered in medium-grey granite. It's a bit imposing, but together with my colleagues Dr. Ariane Grigoteit and Friedhelm Hütte, we're making it into a really attractive location where an impression of the Bank's excellent collection can be gained immediately upon entering the building.

Can you commission a work of art specifically for the Lobby, or do you help yourself to the existing collection?

For the moment, we don't need any new acquisitions, because we can work with what we have in our collection worldwide. The cost-cutting affects everyone right now, of course, the art department no less than the others. People tend to want to particularly cut back in areas they don't think of as being essential. It is my firm belief is that art is essential and necessary for our quality of life, today more so than ever.

The interview was conducted by Verena Lueken, editor and American correspondent for the cultural section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. She is recent author of the book "New York - Reportage aus einer alten Stadt", DuMont Verlag, Köln 2002, ISBN 3832178082.