Banks Step Up to Support Arts Communities Impacted by Covid-19

By Karen Epper Hoffman

Banks large and small have had close, supportive relationships with local and national arts and culture for a long time. Indeed, financial institutions have played key roles in not only financially sponsoring, but actively supporting and participating in many arts and culture initiatives, including amassing their own art collections. Erica Opstad, community affairs manager for national programs at U.S. Bank, has spent more than two decades leading the distribution of grants to the arts. She sees arts and culture as a key pillar of the bank’s support of its customers and employees. “It’s about a focus with philanthropy,” Opstad says. “Arts institutes are small businesses and strong contributors to [their]town or city.”

Bank of America has long played a significant role in both creating and lending out its own art collection and supporting arts and culture throughout the nation. Rena De Sisto, global executive for arts and culture and women’s programs at Bank of America, says that in addition to showing paintings and sculptures in the bank’s 800 facilities, the bank has lent out its art collection to 150 shows over the past decade. Bank of America boasts 50,000 pieces in its private arts collection, from posters and prints to expensive works.

“We very often get calls about our art collection,” says De Sisto, adding that the bank has often co-curated exhibitions at the Gantt Center in the bank’s headquarters city of Charlotte, North Carolina, the Nassau County Museum of Art on Long Island and museums in Milan, Seoul and Dublin.

Sally McCrady, chairwoman and president of the PNC Foundation and executive vice president and director of community affairs, PNC Financial Services Group, oversees the Pittsburgh region’s support of arts and culture, including PNC Arts Alive, a multi-million dollar funding initiative designed to support visual and performing arts organizations and make the arts accessible to all audiences. Since 2009, PNC has awarded more than $18 million in grants to cultural organizations in Central Ohio, Southeast Florida, Greater Philadelphia, Southern New Jersey, Delaware and the St. Louis area.

Some financial service institutions have been supporting their arts habit for decades. Take Royal Bank of Canada (RBC): The Toronto-based multi-national has been building its own private arts collection since 1929, according to Corrie Jackson, the RBC art collection’s senior curator. In 2003, RBC expanded its already vast collection to include the work of more emerging artists, and supported museum residencies and other arts programs through the bank’s foundation. “That really became the moment when the collection really echoed the arts world at large,” Jackson says. “There’s a realization that supporting the work of living artists [makes for]a more contemporary collection. It becomes a catalyst for conversation.”

Roughly 90 percent of the 5,000-plus pieces of art RBC owns are exhibited in RBC offices in 15 different locations worldwide, with a significant portion of the U.S.-based art collection being moved to a new space that will open in 2022, notes Tricia Heuring, coordinator for RBC’s U.S. Wealth Management and manager of the bank’s U.S. collection. The pieces installed in this U.S. collection, to be based in Minnesota, will all focus on “the human figure and human connection,” she adds, with the bank rotating out various works to “change the dialogue” as the exhibit evolves, Heuring adds. In this way, banks such as RBC are not only trying to “enhance the workplace” for their employees, but depict how the country’s experiences over the past year are reflected in modern artwork. “This is how people feel,” she adds. “These are the times we’re living in.”

Banks often will work closely with museums or other established art fairs as sponsors or active supporters of their exhibits. International bank UBS has not only been collecting contemporary art for more than six decades–a collection that boasts more than 30,000 works from artists who hail from 70 countries The Swiss bank has been a partner of the famous Art Basel contemporary art show for 28 years, also actively supporting the fair’s U.S. exhibition in Miami Beach for the past two decades, says John Mathews, head of ultra-high net worth customers for UBS Global Wealth Management Americas.

“The mission of our collection is to acquire and maintain works of art in the communities where we do business, buying on the primary market to directly support artists and galleries,” Mathews says. He adds that the bank lends works to art museums and cultural institutions, such as Ed Ruscha’s current solo exhibition in the artist’s hometown in Oklahoma. To make art more accessible, UBS launched its own art gallery in 2019 at its New York City headquarters.

And cultural support and awareness is an arena not just reserved for the world’s largest financial firms. Kansas City, Missouri-based Lead Bank, with $700 million in assets, has been flexing its engagement of the arts for many years now, says CEO and vice chairman Josh Rowland. Renamed in 2008, the previous Garden City Bank “needed a reboot and a re-establishment after emerging from the financial crisis,” Rowland says. “We had an opportunity to redesign what the bank was doing.”

The bank and the Rowland family, who are majority shareholders, have been involved in the performing arts scene in Kansas City for decades. The bank has become more active in its support of the city’s symphony, and the Kansas City Art Institute, and has more recently launched an emerging artist competing. “As a community bank, [some think]we don’t have multi-millions to spend on buying art,” Rowland says. “But we do have a mandate to act responsively. These artists are small business people, who [are]an economic engine for travel and entertainment and other services.” This is critical now as quarantine winds down.

Indeed, many art-supporting banks see their sponsorship of local arts institutes, symphonies, events and young artists programs as essential to strengthening their local economies, especially right now with so many businesses hit hard by the pandemic. “This is a reflection of our investment in the community in a direct and specific way,” says Jackson of RBC.

Jackson’s team and their counterparts in other locations consider carefully how employees and customers “are moving through the space” where their art installations dwell. They meet with customers and employees to get their feedback, and the bank cultural teams try to curate a “very diverse” palette of artists from different locations, backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. Heuring adds that RBC’s Minnesota collection going up next year was crafted “not just to be aesthetically pleasing,” but to showcase more artists who are women and people of color.

“We’re all still navigating how the artists’ communities have been hit by COVID, how their audience and their sources of income have been hit too,” Jackson adds. “All of this is shifting more than ever.”

Bank of America’s De Sisto agrees that part of their program’s mission is to “help museums through this difficult time.” Thinking out of the box to offer art-viewing outlets during the year-long quarantine, the bank recently introduced its Masterpiece Moment program, where online viewers can tour large and varied art collections virtually. For the art institutes, this is compelling advertising and the bank has also helped its art community partners find new ways to charge for its online offerings, softening the blow of lost ticket sales.

“We are working with them, side by side,” De Sisto says. He adds that until recently digital offerings have largely just cost the museums, without earning them much in return. “We’re interested in seeing local economies do well. And the arts are intrinsic to the health and vibrancy of our communities.”

A frequent ABA Banking Journal contributor, Karen Epper Hoffman has been writing about the financial industry and technology for nearly 30 years. Her work has appeared in American Banker, the Wall Street Journal, PaymentsSource and others.