Until recently most corporate collections in China consisted of a few tasteful pieces of traditional Chinese art or antiques kept in the director's office. This reflected the highly conservative tastes of the business community, and modern art was considered the preserve of a few joint ventures. Not any more. "I think it is time to dispel this myth that Chinese aren't buying art," says Meg Maggio, director of the Court- Yard Gallery in Beijing, which specialises in contemporary Chinese art. "One of the companies that we work with is one of the largest Chinese law firms. The managing partner's office is full of art."
One of the most visible examples in Beijing is the collection displayed in and around the trendy office and residential area of SOHO new town, off Jianguo Lu in Chaoyang district. Zhang Xin, chief executive of the SOHO China property group, is motivated not only by the investment potential but also in wanting to share her passion and make art part of her urban landscape. The modern Chinese artworks in the SOHO collection are different from those in other collections. "[Their] creative process started as early as the architectural design of SOHO," she says. "And in some cases the artwork was built into the structure, becoming a permanent part of the architecture for all to enjoy."
However, foreign joint ventures are still in the vanguard when it comes to embracing modern art. The collection at Novozymes, the innovative Danish enzyme company, originated from a passion but is being expanded with other aims. The Red Gate Gallery in Beijing was invited in to advise the company on art purchases and picture placement. Employees were also involved in the selection process, with some staff even requesting certain pieces in their work area – or rejecting them. Once incident involved an erotic painting that was subsequently moved from reception to a downstairs corridor. Another concerned the separation of two paintings that were meant to be placed side-by-side, creating discomfort among some staff members who felt that a connection might be made to the political stand-off between the mainland and Taiwan.
"But in a way this was all a good reaction," says Anders Ohmann, head of research and development at Novozymes. "It got people talking. Some staff think the money could be spent better but, overall, everyone acknowledges that the company is prepared to invest in this art for their benefit. And this gives us visibility, identity."
Similar ambitions are held by the Shanghai office of Bayer, the global healthcare, chemicals and crop science company. There is space for art and exhibitions to 'educate' the workforce and improve working conditions, and to show that the chemical industry can be clean, modern and even stylish. It is now looking to co-operate with a local gallery.
And there is certainly no shortage of galleries to choose from in Shanghai. Shanghart, for example, has been working with global financial institutions such as JP Morgan and WestLB in addition to a small number of local firms. Meanwhile, in Nanjing the new Shenghua Arts Centre works exclusively with the local Chinese market, aiming to encourage businesses to invest in art. Holding regular exhibitions, lectures and art salons, the centre is attempting to bring a little culture into commerce in Nanjing. According to Chen Yan, manager of the centre, roughly half of its clients are entrepreneurs. "It's seen as an investment, of course, but they also want to express themselves," she says. And it's also to improve the work environment, the company's culture and [quality] level of staff. Plus, it's a sign of success. If you've got art in your office, you've arrived."