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Corporate collections as emerging heritage: Art market dynamics, corporate strategies, and public support for the arts.


Arnold Witte & Nachoem Wijnberg


Monika Kackovic, Jan de Groot

Description of the Project:

Corporate art collections form an important part of the demand for contemporary art in the Netherlands. Many corporate collections, from multinationals to non-profit organizations, showcase 'avant garde' art produced by artists just entering the art market, increasing these artists’ chances to be canonized and recognized as part of Dutch cultural heritage. At the same time, these collections are corporate, and an outcome of attitudes towards cultural consumption among the members of these organizations as well as a result of strategic decision making at the organizational level.

By using a signalling framework to integrate cultural studies and management science perspectives the project will study the effects of corporate art collecting in the context of the dynamics of the art world, as well as in the context of the competitive strategies in which corporations that build collections are involved.

The project will analyse how corporate collecting functions as a source of signals to different audiences, including museums and other actors on the art market and both internal and external stakeholders of the collecting organizations. The responses of these different groups can interact, reinforcing the overall effect of corporate collecting on longer-term developments in art fields and public policy towards art. Specific behaviour of corporate collectors – for instance the extent to which they exhibit (digitally or physically) their collections to the broader public – will further moderate artist's careers and the reception of their work in the long run. This project thus serves the understanding of the dynamics of corporate collections as guardians of emergent heritage, within the larger debate on heritage management, museum collections and creative industry.

Keywords: Quality signals, Art Market, Corporate Reputation, Cultural Consumption, Cultural Heritage, Cultural Policy

Public-private partnership

Recently, government policy towards the art has favoured cuts on budgets and subsidies, while expecting a greater involvement from private parties and industry to offset possible damages to the art sector and national cultural heritage. However, the economic downturn has led to cutbacks in the corporate art budgets too. This is a worrying development for the art world, especially because of the risk of a reinforcing feedbackloop between lower investments in the arts and a lower valuation of the importance of the arts for the economy and society.

In the last decades the involvement of industry in the art market has grown and many larger organizations have set up corporate art collections. These corporate collectors have organized themselves in the Association of Corporate Collections in the Netherlands (Vereniging van Bedrijfscollecties Nederland, henceforth VBCN).

Against the background of the above-mentioned developments, the threat of further cutbacks to the budgets of the collections themselves, and the current debates on the sale or alienation of corporate collections, the VBCN saw an urgent need for a systematic investigation into the effects of corporate collecting. At present, there is only limited knowledge about the state of corporate collections and no studies of the effects of the collections on the art market, the reputation of the involved corporations or on developments in the wider art world.

Other organizations that are concerned about the dynamics of the art world, such as the Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Boekman Stichting, recognized the same need for an in-depth study of the role of corporate collecting and are willing to share their expertise on their respective fields with the research team, in the context of research meetings and broader (co-organised) symposia.

The consortium set up for this project combines the expertise of two different academic fields in ways that will benefit both the VBCN and the Dutch art market to achieve a fuller and more in-depth understanding of the dynamic processes in which corporate collecting plays a role. The collaboration of the VBCN – and through the VCBN of its individual members, ranging from AMC and Rabobank to AKZONOBEL – will enable the researchers to access, construct and explore a wide range of datasets at the level of the collections and the collecting organizations. The involvement of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed, and the good informal contacts with the Boekman Stichting will greatly benefit the project by allowing not just further access to existing data but also active collaboration in studying developments in the wider art markets and art policy, and the issue of future heritage management.

Precisely in the rapidly changing environment of the – national and international – art world this project sets out to gather knowledge, which will have immediate relevance for decision-making in for profit and not-for-profit organizations, as well as shape effective cultural policy. These decisions, in turn, will determine the extent to which corporate collecting can continue to function as the driving force of emergent Dutch cultural heritage.

Academic issues

Corporate art collections form an important part of the demand for contemporary art, especially new and/or innovative art forms. As such corporate collections play a leading role in the art market. Collectively, corporate collections in the Netherlands and most other countries showcase ‘avant-garde’ art produced by artists with local or national provenance and/or just entering the art market, increasing the chances that these artists are accepted by cultural institutions and the general public, which, in turn, might lead to a process of canonization and recognition of the importance of their work to future generations. Viewed this way, corporate art collections can be seen as emergent national cultural heritage.

At the same time, these collections are corporate, belonging to for profit – or not-for-profit – corporations ranging from regional to multinational size. The decision to engage in corporate collecting can affect the reputation of the corporation in the eyes of internal and external stakeholders, and it also affects the cultural consumer behaviour of employees in general and especially of members of the higher management echelons. At an aggregate level corporate collecting – and the emergent cultural heritage it results in – can affect the attitudes of the broader public and national governments towards the artistic field and, more particularly, with regard to the position of the arts in society and the extent to which particular types of art policy are considered desirable.

All the above-mentioned effects of corporate collecting can be studied from the perspective of signalling theory in the sense that the decisions of corporations and their curators can be publicly observed and function as signals to outside observers, who include these signals in the information they base their own decisions on. A particular corporate collection acquiring the work of a particular artist is a signal about this artist. Many corporate collections investing in particular styles, movements, genres or artists are a signal about these styles, movements, genres and artists. A particular organization having a particular corporate collection, and exhibiting it in a particular way, is a signal of what kind of organization this is, to external stakeholders and to employees. Many corporate collections investing in art is a signal of the importance of art to broader society; the art functioning as a signal is more likely to become cultural heritage, the stronger its function as a signal.

The core contribution of this project is to investigate these signalling effects of corporate collecting to stakeholders in the corporate and the arts sectors. How strong are these effects, what determines their strength, and how do different effects interact? The antecedents and consequences of corporate collecting will be considered, as part of the wider dynamics of the art world and also of the competitive dynamics in which corporations that build collections are involved.

The project will focus on a number of research questions. We want to know how corporate collecting functions as a signal of artistic quality, affecting museums, private collectors, and intermediaries, e.g. dealers and art galleries, and how this has an impact on the development of the visual arts and the formation of artistic heritage. Further, the effects of corporate collections making themselves (semi-)public, displaying (parts of) collections to internal and external stakeholders, both physically and digitally, need to be investigated, as these coincide with the signals they send out about corporate reputation to different groups of stakeholders. Apart from the effect of these signals to the art world, the question is how reputations resulting from art collecting might be transferred to other domains.

At the same time, we will analyse the interaction between corporate collecting and cultural consumption by members of the involved corporations, amongst general employees but especially at the upper echelon level, and how this ties in with the effect of corporate art collections on public support for the visual arts and its meaning for cultural heritage management with respect to these collections.

The project as a whole builds on theoretical foundations from management science and from humanities disciplines - specifically heritage studies, cultural studies and art history. By simultaneously adopting management science and humanities-based perspectives, this project considers a much broader range of evidence, to triangulate results in innovative ways, and is forced to extend theoretical and conceptual frameworks, leading to further theoretical contributions.

The project’s lines of inquiry play out against a theoretical background of four approaches:

1) Patronage & heritage studies

Corporate collecting can be considered as the contemporary manifestation of artistic patronage. Whereas traditional studies on early modern patronage assumed that this was a sign of aesthetic appreciation on the part of the patron, recently the focus has shifted towards instrumental interpretations of the phenomenon. Commissioning or buying of works of art could enhance the social status of patrons; also their position within an institutional setting could be cemented through patronage, and institutions such as religious orders, confraternities or the Catholic Church as a whole could employ artistic patronage for the enhancement of their reputation.

At the same time, patrons had a major impact on the choice of subject and on style. This influence could be exerted directly or through middlemen or advisors, who as expert selectors influenced competitive processes in the art markets. Moreover, patrons and advisors influenced the career of artists by promoting them through institutional and social networks, signalling the quality of their work to other cultural consumers, thus increasing their competitive advantage in the art market. As such, the system of patronage was instrumental in elevating the status of artists, which translated in their appreciation by later generations. Thus, signals related to the status of patrons and their strategic patronage of specific artists mutually reinforced their historical reception, which proved instrumental in the creation of heritage.

These insights on early modern patronage and the dynamics between artists, patrons, advisors, institutions and public have been applied to the modern and contemporary periods. The importance of social and institutional networks in which signals about artistic quality are exchanged is increasingly acknowledged in art historical research on the modern period but their effect on the momentum of emerging heritage has not yet been acknowledged. Adopting signalling theory to explain the phenomenon of heritage formation will shift the focus in heritage studies towards the interplay of creation and reception. Moreover, studies of contemporary patronage, including those on corporate collections, pay attention to competitive processes, but primarily in terms of competing for Bourdieuan cultural capital; they ignore the effects of corporate collecting on competition within the art market or corporate collecting as a potential tool in the competitive process among business firms. Exploring these two directions will be an innovative contribution of this project.

2) Cultural consumption

There are many studies about the determinants of cultural consumption focusing on demographic characteristics of consumers – age, sex, income – class, education and other proxies of cultural capital. This project will pursue an innovative approach by looking how factors at the level of the organization co-determine cultural consumption by employees of the focal organization, focusing on the presence and characteristics of the corporate collection as a factor affecting their cultural consumption. We will distinguish between the cultural consumption behaviour of employees in general and the upper echelon managers.

Again, the project will adopt a signalling perspective to address these issues. There are two processes by which the corporate collection could affect the attitude and resulting cultural consumer behaviour of employees. First, there is the direct effect of the organization signalling to its employees that it attributes a value to the visual arts. Organizational values and the values of individual employees can interact. Therefore, cultural consumption by employees, and especially upper echelon members, might be influenced by the extent to which the organization makes its corporate collection an expression of how it wants to be perceived (its corporate reputation, see below), or that employees of organizations with prominent corporate collections will self-select for high levels of cultural consumption. The extent to which organizational values affect individual values might also depend on the organizational roles of employees and the value systems connected with these roles. Secondly, the fact that the organization values art makes it easier for employees to express their interest in art, which might signal to their colleagues. This second process might be different for upper echelon managers than employees in general.

Cultural participation has also become a point of reference in cultural policy, in which participation is seen as a signal of public value assigned to the arts: it is one of the primary criteria for the allocation of subsidies to institutions in the Dutch art world. In this context, data on cultural participation is primarily based on visitor numbers, spending patterns and circles of friends of museums and other specialized organizations. Also internationally, cultural participation is often researched through museums and other (semi-)state cultural institutions, therefore ignoring possible positive contributions of corporate art collections in enhancing cultural participation in the visual arts. This is surprising, as a primary motive for corporate art collecting is to increase the interest of employees in culture. In general, notwithstanding recent debates on how to measure the value and impact of culture no research has as yet considered the role of corporate collections in promoting cultural participation.

By surveying employees to investigate their motivations as cultural consumers, this project strives to disentangle the effects of general demographic and social characteristics from the organization-specific effects of the corporate collection and also investigate the actual signalling processes that explain the organization-specific effects. At the same time, it counters the dominance of subsidized organizations in the research on cultural participation.

3) Quality signals & art market dynamics

An important characteristic of the art market is that it has an oversupply of products and an undersupply of information about their quality, particularly in the primary art market. This scarcity of information and resulting uncertainty will increase the relative effect of available (third party) quality signals. Moreover, such signals are particularly important when quality is difficult to determine prior to consumption or even after consumption.

A broad range of possible quality signals have been studied in the context of the cultural industries, such as reviews and awards. Apart from signals that explicitly evaluate quality, there are other signals that do so implicitly, and to this category belong signals resulting from observable sales. The strength of a sales event as a signal of quality will of course depend on how likely it is to be observed and how much confidence other potential buyers have in the judgment of the observed buyer.

Corporate collectors do not hide their buying behaviour, as some private buyers prefer to do. Every other potential buyer can easily observe what every corporate collection has acquired, especially since in the last decade, corporate collections have been publicly exhibited or information about them is increasingly available on Internet. This means that the chances will be increased that acquisitions by corporate collectors can function as signals. Corporate collectors are considered to be knowledgeable buyers who also are likely to be on the look-out for new trends and styles. In that sense, they can be considered “early adopters”, whose behaviour will signal to later adopters – in the visual art context, these are private collectors and museums.

These field level dynamics can be understood in terms of informational cascade theory, which is grounded on the assumption that observation of others – their actions, payoffs and/or consequences of their actions – can become the dominant signal. If the observation of the decisions of others does become dominant, the result can be herd behaviour, “doing what everyone else is doing”. Thus, a corporate collection signalling quality information about their collection can affect future purchases of other corporate collections, –i.e., convince them to also purchase a particular artist or genre - and if many corporate collections do the same, this can lead to herd behaviour. Furthermore, this can also affect other collectors, such as museums and private collectors. If there is herd behaviour among corporate art collectors this can function as a signal in itself, amplifying the effect of the behaviour of individual corporate collectors. This herd behaviour often translates into general appreciation, and thus canonization of the respective artist or artistic movement. In the end, this collective signal can also have a strong effect on the general attitudes of society and policymakers towards the (visual) arts.

4) Corporate reputation

Corporate reputation functions as a signal of quality about the organization that helps increase confidence in the organization’s products or services. A good corporate reputation is an intangible asset for the organization, which can lead to strategic benefits that can positively affect corporate performance. A corporate reputation has many dimensions, for example, an organization can have a reputation for innovativeness, trustworthiness, artistic quality etc. These reputations can actually be reputations of specific individuals or particular divisions of the organization or of affiliates, especially in situations of cobranding.

Corporate collections as such can also be a source of reputation that is transferred to the organization as a whole. Of course, it is not just that an organization has a corporate collection which will contribute to its reputation, but also what is in it and how influential it is perceived to be, which will moderate the reputational effect of the corporate collection on the organizational stakeholders.  At the same time, a high corporate reputation will reflect back on the status of the artist. Translated into heritage terms, the patronage of a company with a high corporate reputation will constitute a strong signal to the art world and the general audience that the artists whose works it acquires might in time might become heritage.

This leads to the conclusion that, although the four approaches originate from two different disciplines, core issues in them relating to corporate collections are interconnected. The extent to which corporate collectors as patrons influence the market and as such can be seen as early adopters and opinion leaders, together with the public visibility of these collections, affects corporate reputation. Specifically, they have an impact on attitudes and behaviour of employees, customers and other stakeholders, including policy makers, both toward the organization itself and the arts. All these processes and relations interact in shaping the role of corporate collectors as creators and curators of emergent cultural heritage.

Practical implementation

The proposed study of corporate collections as sources of signals makes it impossible to build on one of the four approaches in isolation. This will result in new questions and innovative perspectives, forcing the researchers to extend and renovate the relevant theoretical frameworks. For the same reasons the project has to combine datasets and methodologies that rarely have been used together; for instance, combining quantitative management science models (e.g. data analysis, structural equation models, logistic and binomial regressions) to analyse the effects of signals arising out of corporate art acquisitions with the in-depth qualitative analysis of patterns of influence as are more usual in art history and cultural studies (e.g. archival research and cultural policy analysis). Also with regard to collecting new data, the project will follow a general strategy of combining the humanities and management perspectives, not only for triangulation but also to achieve greater empirical depth. For instance, with regard to cultural consumption, a survey will be developed that allows the researchers to analyse quantifiable aspects of cultural consumption patterns of employees with and without art collections and relate these data to the ways these same employees perceive their organization and the arts in general. The results gained from both the humanities and management perspectives will be combined in a digital research surrounding that enables us to combine quantitative and qualitative data in one coherent network and signal analysis.


The project has broader economic and social relevance. It will analyse the determinants of cultural consumption, which is of great importance to both producers of creative goods and to policymakers concerned with public engagement with art and culture. It also serves the understanding of corporate collections as guardians of emergent heritage, which is of great social importance, especially when the position of public collections is increasingly debated and their acquisition budgets are under pressure. This ties in with the general issue of how to secure the artistic heritage of today and tomorrow for future generations. The stronger the forces of economic and cultural globalization, the more pertinent issues concerning the preservation of (national) cultural heritage become. In this context, the project also aims to provide a counter-perspective to the discussion on privatization of cultural heritage, in which only the disposal of cultural properties and their assignment to private entities is studied while the reverse issue of the increasing public importance of private, especially corporate heritage is largely ignored.

The project will contribute more generally to the study of the dynamics of markets of creative goods and the ways in which being associated (not producing it oneself, but having observable relations to those who do) to artistic excellence (as can be recognized in all creative goods) affect the reputation of the involved organizations. Increasing knowledge about these two aspects has great practical importance for the creative industries as a whole.

Furthermore, data generated by this project will be incorporated in the CultuurIndex Nederland and, in the international context, the Compendium Network (especially the Cultural Markets and Trade database). This is of utmost importance as these databases serve the formulation of future cultural policies on private-public cooperation in the creative industries and cultural heritage, and contributions to the arts sector by private actors are still largely invisible in the present overviews.

Cohesion of the research

The project focuses on related issues that will be considered from the perspectives of management science and cultural studies, building on the four streams of research discussed above. The team members will be involved in studies relating to all of them, facilitating a thorough interdisciplinary approach resulting in a set of cohesive final products. Regular meetings with both the research team and with the private and public partners facilitate a regular exchange of data and outcomes of the various projects. In this context, the project leaders will be involved with all planned subprojects, ensuring that both the humanities and the management science perspectives will figure in each of them; they will edit and co-author several publications.

The Ph.D. researcher will combine humanities and management science perspectives in the analysis of historical data. He/she will research the dynamics of acquisitions for corporate art collections in comparison to acquisitions of comparable contemporary art by museums after 1945, and the position of mediators as expert selectors. He/she will explore a number of case studies, including the Bijenkorf collection and the Stuyvesant Collection. Both constitute examples of early adaptors of artistic currents, for example the CoBrA school, which was also acquired by other museums in the Netherlands such as the Stedelijk Museum, and private collectors. This time-lapse between museums on the one hand, and the Bijenkorf and Stuyvesant collections on the other, will be compared to the acquisition of works by the same artists by other private and corporate collections in the Netherlands.

The Stuyvesant Collection signalled to other companies to start their own collections, but how these signals were interpreted in the sense of which artists were to be preferred, influencing other actors in the art market, and thus the historical effect of 'herd behaviour' on the acceptance of certain art movements, has not yet been systematically investigated. The main material for this research consists in archives, the analysis of contemporary art journals, and databases such as those of the Rijksdienst Kunsthistorische Documentatie. This history of collecting and signalling will then be related to the dispersal of the Bijenkorf and Stuyvesant collections, public debates on their preservation, and signals in the media whether these collections were considered as national heritage. This research into the processes by which corporate collections acted as influencers of the wider art world and points of origin for later canonization of artists and styles will be further expanded to study the impact of corporate collections on the wider public’s appreciation of these artists and styles, as well as contemporary (visual) arts in general. Next to this line of inquiry about how corporate collecting functions as a source of signals to wider society, the Ph.D. researcher will also study the specific effects of corporate collections on the cultural consumption behaviour of the employees of the collecting organization.

The Postdoc will focus on corporate collecting as a source of quality signals (about artists and their work) to the contemporary art market, as well as a source of quality signals about the collecting organization to its external stakeholders. With regard to the role of corporate collecting as a source of quality signals, this part of the Postdoc’s research is close to the part of the Ph.D. researcher’s project that concerns the patterns of influence between corporate collectors and museums. The Postdoc will apply a stronger management science perspective on the market dynamics and perform a quantitative analysis of the buying behaviour of a wide range of customers (also private collectors). The Postdoc will focus on detecting possible informational cascades and herd behaviour among corporate collectors, as well as the ways in which these amplify the power of signals of individual collectors.

For the research on the effects of collecting on corporate reputation the Postdoc will use both in-depth interviews and quantitative indicators, such as corporate reputation surveys. The quantitative data will be analysed using e.g. panel data analysis, structural equation models, logistic and binomial regressions, etc. The postdoc will study whether and to what extent the particular composition of the corporate collection has particular effects on the perception of the corporate reputation by particular groups of stakeholders.

Together with the Ph.D. researcher, he/she will study the effect of corporate collecting on the cultural consumption behaviour of employees in the present, which will be the basis of a collaborative article. Within this subproject the Postdoc will especially focus on the behaviour and attitudes of upper echelon managers, whose attitudes – and the extent to which their attitudes develop in step with the values of the organization and those of their colleagues - can have major consequences for organizational performance.

Selection of publications of the project leaders.

-Witte, A.A. (2009). Bedrijfscollecties in Nederland/Corporate Art Collections in the Netherlands, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers

-Brands, F.E.M. & Witte, A.A. (2013). 'Healing environment' en het lot van autonome kunst in ziekenhuizen. Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde, 157, A6109.

-Witte, A.A. (2011). Goed voorbeeld doet goed volgen: bedrijfscollecties en het maatschappelijke draagvlak voor de kunst. Boekman 87: 63-68.

-Witte, A.A. & Cleven, E. (2006). 'Design is geen vrijbijvende zaak'. Organisatie, imago en context van de PTT-vormgeving tussen 1906 en 2002. Breda/Rotterdam: Museum de Beyerd/NAi Uitgevers

-Wijnberg, N.M. (1994) Art and Technology: A Comparative Study of Policy Legitimation, Journal of Cultural Economics, Vol.18, No.1, pp.3-13.

-Wijnberg, N.M. (1997) Art and Appropriability in Renaissance Italy and the Netherlands of the Golden Age: The Role of the Academy,  De Economist, Vol.145, No.2, pp.139-158.

-Wijnberg, N.M. & Gemser, G (2000) Adding Value to Innovation: Impressionism and the transformation of the Selection System in Visual Arts,  Organization Science, Vol. 11, No.3, pp.323-329.

-Gemser, G. & Wijnberg, N.M. (2001) Effects of reputational sanctions and Inter-Firm Linkages on Competitive Imitation, Organization Studies, Vol 22, No.4, pp.563-591.

-Wijnberg, N.M. (2004) Innovation and Organization: Value and Competition in Selection Systems, Organization Studies, Vol. 25, No. 8, pp. 1469-1490.

-Gemser, G.; Leenders, M.A.A.M and Wijnberg, N.M. (2008). Why some Awards are more Effective Signals of Quality than Others: A studie of Movie Awards, Journal of Management, Vol. 34 No. 1,: 25-54.

This Research Group is active in the following constellation: