Vital signs: Join the art club

Vital signs: Join the art club - Art is businesslike. It helps businesses. And it helps business people. Art can be part of your personal trajectory plan, your drive to greatness.

by PETER YORK
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Art is businesslike. It helps businesses. And it helps business people. Art can be part of your personal trajectory plan, your drive to greatness.

It wasn't always like that. Time was, art sort of topped and tailed people's working lives. They might have an arty period in their teens or at university, with gallery-going, big thoughts, and a feeling for words like 'subversive', 'dangerous' and 'edgy'. Once on the corporate ladder, they put all that behind them, only returning to it when they retired. If they'd really made it, they'd buy approved 'Big Art' to show the world, and if just 'comfortable' on a good pension scheme, they went round the world's great galleries, seeing everything they'd ever seen on a postcard.

But in the intervening time, 'The Strenuous Years', realistic business folk had no truck with art if they knew what was good for them, certainly not during working hours. An excessive interest in the visual arts - particularly contemporary art - could be a seriously bad sign. But that was when corporate hospitality was a West End musical and a steak dinner.

What's changed? Practically everything. Art's got more businesslike. Has it ever.

In the '70s, my artist friends, newly-cooked from art schools, lived in a completely different part of the forest, talked a different language and didn't understand how business worked. But by the mid-80s they'd be using my own marketing-speak language, telling me about corporate sponsorship opportunities for this or that gallery opening, talking up the target markets and the networking opportunities.

A lot of that's down to the Saatchis demonstrating that contemporary art sat happily with financial success and right-wing policies. More than that, they showed that you could make a second, supplementary fortune out of your own art- buying. This stuff was as cool as derivatives.

At the same time, of course, we were getting much more American, and growing corporate affairs departments were working to demonstrate that their businesses were bold, forward-looking and clever, using art brokers such as Anthony Fawcett to find them new stuff and new people.

Looked at like this, securitised (and later digitised), the arts became something altogether more viable for the modern manager. They became 'Intellectual Property', 'Invisible Assets', which could make money while you slept, add value to property developments and magic-up your corporate marketing. Your company should have some, you should have some. Damien Hirst, consultant. Tracey Emin, communications director.

Not just that, art has great parties with fantastic networking opportunities. Art attracts smart people moving on up, which means not only do the top local corporate people go to the best art parties, but the top international ones too.

Familiarity with contemporary art can be utterly transforming in corporate life because it gets you nearer the golden triangle, the floor where the big people sit. And if you're already in a flat, online, dress-down, sofa working culture, then art isn't just a help, it's a positive requirement, because the people of dot.com world emerge from incubators with two feed-pipes - one called 'creativity', one called 'technology'. You're expected to be lateral, and art trains you up. You're expected to get around, and art gets you there.

There's been a huge, almost Victorian investment in arts institutions recently. The Lottery and sponsorship means lots of glamorous 'now' landmark buildings with a round of big events and a massive need for corporate cash and intelligent business- helpers to keep it all going. There's got to be something for you in that.

There is. Your first move is to check out the Friends' organisations of the major institutions. For between pounds 25 and pounds 60 a year you can get free access to places with a high networking potential.

Become, say, a Friend of the Tate Gallery. The Tate is particularly hot now because of the new Tate Modern gallery on the South Bank opening in May. (If you joined now, you could apply for one of the Friends' big parties around the launch week.) Join your local gallery as well - preferably one with a strong corporate link to your company. And then see how you can make yourself useful there, cementing those links to your CEO ever more firmly. You can't go wrong.

Peter York, in his persona as Peter Wallis, is managing director of consultants SRU. e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk.

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