Art in Our Communities: An Interview with Bank of America

‘I think that art is a window into pretty much everything that affects humanity—that’s how I look at it’—Rena DeSisto, global arts and culture executive at Bank of America

Rena DeSisto and Allen Blevins from Bank of America give Arts & Collections an insight into their Art in Our Communities project.

Since its inception in 2008, Bank of America has used its Art in Our Communities scheme to reach out to non-profit museums and galleries, helping to boost their revenue and recognition. More specifically, the project allows organisations in need to borrow entire exhibitions or grouped pieces from the bank’s exclusive art collection at no cost. The scheme’s success has resulted in the loaning of more than 120 exhibitions to museums around the globe, offering the public the opportunity to experience some of the most profound artworks in all their glory. We spoke with the bank’s global arts and culture executive, Rena DeSisto, and art and heritage director, Allen Blevins, to gain a better understanding of how the scheme was developed.

‘We were just looking at the art collection and what was the best way to use it. […] Basically, putting on our “good corporate citizen” hat, the question became “how do we use this best?” […] Many companies, ours included, had from time to time lent a piece or two or three to a show—the curator would know that we had something or enquire if we had something we would lend them. But we wanted to do something more robust than that, and we knew that we had the ability to pull together complete shows. We also decided that if this was going to be a community resource, it needed to be at no cost to the end user—i.e. the non-profit museum’, DeSisto explains.

Describing the offset of the programme as a ‘slow start’, DeSisto goes on to divulge in how the project has gradually blossomed into a valuable resource, with a list of institutions that have requested to be a part of it. ‘After probably five or six shows and word started to get out and so forth, the requests starting coming in to us, and the rest is kind of history.’ She adds: ‘Now we are travelling more than 12 shows a year, which is probably more than any museum does. The challenge now is to keep up with the demand; we also don’t want to fatigue the art in terms of handling and subjecting it to different environments.’

Bank of America’s organisers process the requests for exhibitions cyclically, usually booking them 12 to 24 months in advance. Art establishments may wish to appeal for this assistance for a number of reasons. ‘If we have situations where museums have had a gap in their schedule or an exhibition has cancelled for whatever reason, we have been able to work with them at very short notice to get an exhibition to them to fill that gap,’ Blevins explains. ‘Typically, it works on a cycle. Museums reach out directly to us or there’s a link on our arts and culture website where museums can contact us.’

Art in Our Communities has been praised for its admirable objectives and the considerable scale with which it has been orchestrated. ‘I think other companies do lend pieces here and there but I’m quite certain that nobody does what we are doing with this collection’, DeSisto stipulates. The benefits for the museums involved in the project are immeasurable, especially for those whose budgets are more modest. ‘By providing a museum with an exhibition at no cost, or funding the conservation of a cultural treasure, [the programme can] free up money that those institutions can devote to other priorities,’ Blevins adds.

But Bank of America goes further than simply lending their artwork—in fact, they go above and beyond to support their collaborators. Blevins describes how the bank aims to ‘provide the museums with complete didactic information, down to the labels that they put on the wall. We even provide them with educational materials to use at their discretion. We also encourage the museums to embrace the exhibitions and create their own outreach and educational programming.’ The bank fully subsidises their loans, covering every aspect from shipping and crating works to the insurance of the artefacts through the Art in Our Communities programme.

As part of the bank’s mission to aid local communities, they also sponsor and fund the resources for a number of learning programmes for youths. This includes publications and workshops to educate young minds on the arts and other related topics.

‘I look at art as having several social impacts. One of them is education. More broadly: when you look at art and learn about art, you are learning about history, you are learning about other cultures, you are learning about philosophy—sometimes you even learn about science. For instance, if you were to look at the Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins, it’s a fairly bloody look at an operation in the early 1800s—before people understood things about germs, as an example’, DeSisto says. ‘I think that art is a window into pretty much everything that affects humanity—that’s how I look at it. I also look at it as—in this crazy world that we live in—a cultural understanding tool’, she added.

Identifying the power of art to unify and spread salient social messages, Bank of America has thoughtfully curated collections that seek to bridge a gap between cultures and shine a light on different ways of living. Their group of shows on Mexican diversity is a prime example of this—Manuel Carrillo: My Beloved Mexico—on exhibit next year at McNay Art Museum in Austin, Texas. This exhibition illustrates the Mexican way of life through expressive photographs; emphasising the experience of their traditions through a native artist’s eyes.

DeSisto hopes that the Art in Our Communities programme will encourage a general change in attitude; especially in the way we consume art. ‘The change that I would like to see is that more and more people are seeing the arts and feeling comfortable with the arts and understanding that it’s for everyone—it’s not a highfalutin kind of endeavour.’ She also wishes that fellow corporations will follow their lead by investing in this vital sector: ‘I would also like to see corporate support of the arts around the world become more robust,’ she concluded.

Bank of America looks forward to an active schedule of rotating exhibitions in the upcoming year through Art in Our Communities. Samples from the lineup include: Andy Warhol Unscreened at Wits University Museum of Arts in Johannesburg, South Africa, The Wyeths:  Three Generations at the Portland Art Museum, Oregon, United States and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall: The Art of Collecting at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, United States.

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