Life & CultureMagritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary—Exclusive interview with Allen Blevins

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As the exhibition, Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, opened at its third and final venue, the Art Institute of Chicago (June 24, 2014–October 13, 2014), Charles Ford (Arts & Collections) talked to Allen Blevins, Director of Art & Heritage Programs, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, about the Bank’s involvement with the Magritte exhibition and about the Bank’s wider challenges and objectives through its global art sponsorship and conservation programs.

 AB: I had the opportunity of seeing the exhibition [‘Magritte: the Mystery of the Ordinary’] in New York, before it went to Chicago, and it’s always interesting to see an exhibition when it’s re-hung because it tells a totally different story each time.

This exhibition takes place at just the three venues in the USA. As you can imagine there are a lot of loans required to make this exhibition possible.

CF: Yes, I saw in the marvellous exhibition catalogue, the book produced by MoMA, where the list of acknowledgements covers five pages. It’s astounding!

 AB: Yes and that’s the reason for the limited number of venues—this is due to the number of works that came from different parties.

 CF: Can you tell us about Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s role in all this and when it started?

 AB: Well, when it all started is a difficult question to answer because the Bank has always been involved in supporting art organisations. It’s not something that’s new to us. But we did take a little bit different approach in the support of the arts, starting in about 2007. And it was at that point that we established a dedicated division to work with art, culture, and heritage. All, as such, being a part of our global corporate social responsibility, so at that point we were able to bring together a lot of different areas around the arts into one more concentrated discipline. To talk about those different areas, it’s our corporate art collection and how we use our collection, it’s our philanthropic giving round the arts, and it is our sponsorship from a global perspective.

 CF: Is the Bank’s art collection accessible to the public?

 AB: We do make it accessible through exhibitions … it’s a really unique program that we introduced in 2008 where we make full exhibitions from our corporate collection available for not-for-profit museums and cultural institutions. And since that launched, we’ve loaned exhibitions to over sixty museums around the world—from Seoul, to Milan to Paris and London and throughout the United States. My job as the Bank’s Director of Art & Heritage Programs is to manage the actual programs—which would be our lending program – ‘Art In Our Communities’, and our ‘Art Conservation Project’ where we provide funding to non-for-profit arts organisations around the world (in order to conserve important cultural treasures), to our major sponsorships and philanthropic giving.

 CF: It’s wonderful that a bank can have a dedicated department that has nothing at all to do with banking!

 AB: Well, it does, to a certain extent and what I mean by that is that the reason we support the arts is because we believe that the arts help people in communities to connect.  We also believe a strong arts environment contributes to a strong local economy. So, ultimately, what is good for the communities in which we do our business is also good for our company. While there may not be a direct connection, there is absolutely an indirect connection.’

 CF: With regard to the current Magritte exhibition, ‘The Mystery of the Ordinary’, and other major exhibitions that the Bank sponsors, such as the ‘Matisse Cutouts’, at Tate Modern, London, how do you decide what you will sponsor? There must be quite a significant assessment threshold to cross for those seek sponsorship and before these complicated sponsorships can be agreed?

 AB: Yes, that’s true. At a high level it is very much like putting together a puzzle because we have to evaluate a lot of different pieces of criteria: the first is the exhibition content—and the same evaluation process applies, by the way, whether we’re considering the visual arts or the performing arts. The second piece of the equation is looking at the different markets—the different cities in which it would be touring—and the third component is, what other sponsorships we may be doing in those respective markets within the specific time period of the planned exhibition. We factor in all those things and, as you can imagine, we’re in many of the major markets outside the United States and all the major markets inside the U.S., it is not a simple task.

The way this related to Magritte is that you’ve got three institutions that we have strong relationships with MoMA, New York, the Menil Collection, Houston, and the Art Institute of Chicago. In this particular case, we were working with the Menil on a conservation project several years ago when we provided funding for the conservation of their collection of John Chamberlain’s sculptures. At that time I had the opportunity to meet with the director of the Menil which was when he was working on the early stages of the Magritte exhibition. So part of it is not only looking at the artworks but it is also considering what is the significance of the exhibition—just as with the Matisse Cutouts, this was really a once in a lifetime to see Magritte’s work during this critical period of his career (1926-38).

 CF: And quite surprisingly in that an exhibition hasn’t happened before, showing Magritte’s most important period, in terms of development …

 AB: Oh absolutely. The works are amazing. And the exhibition has done exceptionally well. MoMA has been thrilled by the attendance, as was the Menil.

 CF: Just to go back to your assessment process for a moment … You must be inundated with proposals and presentations from those looking for the Bank’s support?

 AB: That’s correct.

 CF: So you must have a very effective filtering system in place.

 AB: Well, it really is looking at the opportunities and of course you can’t do everything. So we really do look at all of these from a comprehensive strategic standpoint, so while we’re looking at the sponsorships I’ve talked about, we’re also layering in on top of that our support through the ‘Art Conservation Project’, which, over the last four years, we’ve funded seventy-two different projects, conservation initiatives around the globe. So we’re looking at ‘Art in Our Communities’ exhibition loan program, but we also do a lot in the performing arts. We’re really layering all those strands together and looking at it from a strategic standpoint, asking ourselves, where do we have gaps and how do we address that?  Our Global Arts & Culture executive, Rena DeSisto, to whom I report, describes it as not necessarily being a science but there really is an art to the science of making these things work.

 CF: I’d like to suggest that the Bank’s role as a patron of the arts is a critically important one to the arts worldwide, because it seems that some of these exhibitions and conservation programs would never happen with the Bank’s support.

 AB: Yes, I think that’s true. You know, the importance of individuals and corporations supporting the arts is very critical in order to make these types of opportunities available. And as Bank of America Merrill Lynch, we do consider this as part of our commitment to social responsibility.

 CF: Well, is it a wonderful commitment, and more strength to the Bank, if I may say so! Thank you for your time for this conversation.

 Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Arts & Culture Mission Statement

The arts are a powerful tool to help economies thrive; individuals connect with each other and across cultures, and educate and enrich societies. As a global company, we have supported the arts sector in the United States and have promoted cultural diplomacy worldwide by helping to fund the international tours of such renowned organizations as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Alvin Ailey America Dance Theater.

 We support museums, theater, art conservation and dance worldwide. Our program is unique, diverse and built around three main pillars.

•         Bank of America’s support helps enable a wide range of organizations, from local, community–based arts programs to leading, world-class arts institutions to inspire, educate and contribute to both the economic and creative vitality of their communities.

•         The Bank of America Art Collection has been converted into a unique resource that we share — as customized exhibits or in its entirety — with museums and nonprofit galleries at no cost, generating vital revenue for participating institutions.

The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project provides grants for the restoration of paintings, sculptures, archaeological or architectural pieces that are significant to the cultural heritage of a country or region, or important to the history of art to preserve them for future generations.

 FURTHER INFORMATION

http://about.bankofamerica.com/en-us/csr-report-2012/arts-culture.html#fbid=AA0oblbWOyj

http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/magritte-mystery-ordinary-1926-1938

Arts & Collections is the Media Partner of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

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