After the Australian Government established Artbank in 1980, the arts support program became self­funded by reinvesting its rental income back into artwork purchases. The collection now comprises over 10,000 artworks by 3,000 artists, with a focus on supporting emerging artists. arts interview spoke with Artbank client services and marketing manager, Ellen Lloyd Shepherd, about how the organisation balances its cultivation of emerging artists with the everyday reality of meeting companies’ different aesthetic expectations.

Interview by Heather Jennings

Why is Artbank important? What is the organisation’s cultural contribution to companies and the greater community?

For artists, we are often the first national collection to purchase their work. This validates their practice and provides an economic injection to continue their practice. For clients we provide a flexible, cost-effective and accessible means to enhance a workplace or home, while actively supporting contemporary Australian artists. For the people of Australia, we are acquiring a dynamic and culturally important collection that will be shared with future generations. The collection is extremely diverse and we pride ourselves on being able to offer clients the very latest, innovative works, often challenging preconceptions and taste.

How does Artbank maintain a cultural record? Does it factor in exposure and support of emerging artists when collecting new works?

Support of emerging artists through collection and subsequent exposure to their work is of paramount consideration when collecting. Artbank as a collection can take risks on work in a way state and national galleries cannot.
The collection’s quality is a testament to our acquisition policy, which is closely adhered to in order to maintain its integrity. Artbank only acquires work by living Australian artists and from the primary market – directly from artists, via commercial galleries, contemporary art spaces, artist-run organisations and Indigenous communities.
We always find a way to work with artists that could otherwise prove challenging for the collection when assessed against our acquisition policy. Recently, we have started commissioning some artists and working closely with them to explore ways of uniting their creative vision and Artbank’s collecting brief without compromising the integrity of their practice.

What are the curatorial challenges in working with and providing artworks to large corporations? 

Artbank’s curatorial challenges include not being able to acquire works that are inherently fragile, and which might be confronting or provocative in content.

What do clients want and how do you adjust to this?   

Artbank prides itself on being able to provide artwork to suit every taste, personality, location and budget. We rent artworks to many government departments, including Australian embassies and consulates around the world, corporate clients across different industries and private clients who rent work for their homes and small businesses.
Some clients are looking for artwork to freshen a ‘dull’ space, some want a feature for a meeting room or foyer, some like to change over their artworks each year to keep their staff and clients engaged and others are looking for striking pieces that help them sell real estate.
It’s important for us to be at the forefront of collecting, and we strive to purchase work that is reflective of current practice. We purchased our first video work in 2008 and launched our video collection in 2009.

What value does aesthetics have to a business? Will companies avoid artworks that could be considered controversial in a business setting?

Some clients will avoid certain artworks, but not necessarily because they might be considered controversial. A company may want to convey itself as progressive and innovative, informal and enterprising or respectable and established – all of which can be achieved with well selected artworks.

Aesthetics is incredibly important to a business. Each year companies invest substantial money, time and planning to ensure that their corporate identity is expressed in appropriate and relevant ways. Everything from staff demeanour, dress code and office location right down to the use of recycled paper and philanthropic activity, assists a company to build their brand and marketplace positioning. Brand development and aesthetics go hand in hand, and the styling and fit out of an office space can be as important as other more obvious corporate identity decisions.

Clients select artworks that reflect the principles they want to convey as a business, reinforcing messages that more traditional brand campaigns offer.