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There is the romantic image: the artist, lonely and impoverished, but deeply and happily immersed in the act of creation.
Then there is the reality: while it is possible to make art under any circumstances, no artist – given the choice – would prefer to work in conditions of deprivation and suffering.
The fact is that artists need patrons. Sometimes patronage comes in the form of ticket revenue or merchandising. Sometimes artists receive funding from the government. Sometimes a wealthy individual or family provides support. From the Medicis to the Guggenheims, the story of art history cannot be told without reference to art patrons.
The contemporary art landscape, however, depends to a great extent on a slightly different model – one that is both “private” and “public”: corporate art collection and arts sponsorship. In South Africa, as in many countries, business-and-arts partnerships are crucial in sustaining the creative sector.
Standard Bank has, over five decades, become the major corporate brand associated with the arts in this country. Standard Bank has played a formative role in nourishing and promoting South Africa’s creative talents. The Standard Bank Corporate Art Collection is part of this wider programme of arts patronage.
What is Standard Bank’s motivation for acquiring visual artworks? Art is a sound investment; numerous studies have demonstrated that, over time, works of art offer reliable and stable growth in value, although they do not fit into the more common asset classes. In purchasing works of art for its Corporate Art Collection, however, Standard Bank seeks not only to benefit from the investment value of these individual pieces but also to grow the value of the artists’ brands.
Over the past three decades, artists included in the collection have benefited from the exposure of exhibiting work at the Standard Bank Gallery. Art galleries have, of course, traditionally played an important role in boosting artists’ careers by introducing them to collectors, dealers and influential players in the art market. This has changed to some extent with the advent of a digital media landscape; digital art platforms and social media now complement (and in certain instances have replaced) the role of the gallery. Technology has also altered the culture of collecting in numerous ways: collectors are becoming more adventurous, as they have access to the limitless buffet of art online.
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a shift that was already underway. The temporary loss of the in-person gallery viewing experience has been balanced out by the long-term gain of discovering new digital possibilities for exhibiting artworks. This use of digital technologies allows the Standard Bank Gallery to attract a new arts audience, both locally and internationally, of people who would not ordinarily be able to visit the physical space.
That is certainly the case with the Standard Bank Gallery’s latest exhibition, Photographs in Our Mother Tongue, a selection from the Corporate Art Collection of images produced by major South African photographers over the last twenty years. These years of transition in South African society were also a period during which photography became a more prominent feature of the country’s visual arts scene. The iconic images of the preceding decades were mostly associated with photographers working in an urgent documentary and journalistic context – recording life under apartheid and the early years of democracy. The works collected in Photographs in Our Mother Tongue are evidence of a shift towards a more reflective and experimental approach. This change notably overlapped with developments in photographic technology (from analogue to digital) and an altering media landscape (the increasing role of smartphones and social media in the circulation of imagery).
The title of the exhibition was inspired by the ability of photography as a medium to communicate strong and compelling messages. It invites viewers to reimagine photography and its power to capture themes and images that are quintessentially South African – as if these photographs are communicating to us in a language we understand, in our mother tongue.
The photographs exhibited in Photographs in Our Mother Tongue stand in contrast to many of the works in the Standard Bank Corporate Art Collection that were acquired over the latter half of the twentieth century. As curator and art historian Julia Charlton writes, the collection is a testament to “the changes in attitudes by which it has been shaped: shifts in corporate culture, the visual arts sector and the broader South African social and historical context”. From modest beginnings in 1938 – it was formalised in the 1960s – the collection grew slowly. Only after 1990, following the launch of the Standard Bank Gallery, did the extent and scope of the collection begin to take its current shape.
The Standard Bank Corporate Art Collection contains dozens of valuable historical works. Standard Bank has, however, increasingly prioritised the acquisition of new and contemporary pieces, demonstrating its commitment to supporting and promoting practising artists.
Standard Bank has also led other corporations in making the case that investing in the arts is a good business practice too. This win-win relationship between artists and corporate patrons depends on mutual respect and good faith, ensuring that artists do not have to compromise their creative freedom for the sake of financial security.
The Standard Bank Corporate Art Collection comprises over a thousand artworks, and it continues to grow every year. Through its Gallery and other exhibition spaces, and now especially via digital platforms, Standard Bank constantly seeks to make its collection public-facing and accessible.
* Photographs in Our Mother Tongue opens on 15 April 2021. Standard Bank is observing all necessary protocols to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and the Standard Bank Gallery remains physically closed. Photographs in Our Mother Tongue will thus be a virtual exhibition.
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