A pioneering art-in-the-workplace experiment is over

Works are being sold off after British American Tobacco decided the venture was no longer relevant

One of the oldest and most important corporate art collections in Holland, the 50-year-old BATartventure—formerly the Peter Stuyvesant Collection—is being broken up and sold following a restructuring of the global tobacco giant that owns it. A campaign led by local mayor Jan de Ruiter has failed so far to keep the 1,400 postwar and contemporary art works in Zevenaar, a small town in eastern Holland.

The collection was started as a social and industrial experiment in the late 1950s, with works acquired for exhibition in the production halls of the Turkish and Macedonian Tobacco Company (Turmac) cigarette factory, the town’s largest employer with as many as 1,400 workers making 25% of Holland’s cigarettes. The experiment was a success on every level: factory staff enjoyed the paintings, while the collection won critical plaudits, with works regularly loaned for exhibition in public galleries, from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1962 and 1991) to the Fundación Miró in Barcelona (1992).

The fight to save the collection

When BAT Industries (formerly British American Tobacco) announced its intention two years ago to phase out production at Zevenaar, Mr de Ruiter immediately sought assurances that the art collection would be saved. He lobbied his contacts at the Stedelijk, and found two Dutch foundations that were prepared to buy the collection and secure its future for the town. But when he met with BAT’s London-based officials, he says, they appeared determined to press ahead with an auction sale—“perhaps because they already had a contract with Sotheby’s”. “For BAT, Zevenaar is just the point of a needle, they don’t know anything about the factory or the collection,” he says.

BAT, which is the world’s second largest tobacco company and employs 55,000 people in 180 countries, took over the Zevenaar operation in 2000. The decision to end production there, closing down the factory, left the art collection “without a business relevance”, according to a press statement issued by the company. In addition, BAT’s corporate social responsibility focus has moved towards support for tobacco farmers, reforestation programmes and the elimination of child labour.

The company also insists that it attempted to find a buyer who would pay an “acceptable price” for the entire collection, keeping it together in the Netherlands and open to the public. “Unfortunately, no potential buyer was able to meet all of these requirements, and BAT decided to publicly auction the collection,” the company said. BAT declined to identify any possible buyers or to reveal information about the negotiations, beyond announcing that the collection had been consigned for auction by Sotheby’s. It is understood to be worth as much as €25m.

This account is disputed by Mr de Ruiter, and by Martijn Sanders, the collection’s unpaid art advisor since 2001, who insist that the entire collection could have been sold without significant financial loss. Mr Sanders also feels misused by the company—as late as last month, the BATartventure website still displayed a picture of him with the quote: “We never sell a piece of art. An art collection accumulated over time has something of a diary about it. If you sell something from 20 years ago, it’s like ripping a page out of your diary.”

Cees Foet, BAT’s corporate sales manager in Holland and a member of the BATartventure board for 16 years, said that it was “a pity to have to say goodbye”, but BAT was a public company and had to manage its assets in the best way. “I have great difficulty in understanding why they [the critics of BAT’s decision] feel bad when we have succeeded in providing an inspiring working environment for 50 years.” He also says that it was “nonsense” to suggest that BAT had used its advisors to acquire work at bargain prices: “We always paid the market price.” Mr Sanders denies this. “Mr Foet has never been present at any of the negotiations and has no first-hand knowledge as far as I know of the art market. It is a fact that I did get discounts of up to 25% and was able to buy major pieces that were not available for the general market, because I knew the dealer and/or the artist. I was able to buy works of a quality that would never have been offered to a newcomer.”

Works that Mr Sanders brought to the collection include Anton Henning’s Interior No 95, 2001, from Arndt and Partner in Berlin, and Gregory Crewdson’s Untitled (Flower Beanstalk), 2001, from Luhring Augustine in New York. He also acquired work by British artists Hannah Starkey (Untitled, 2001) and Fiona Rae (Lepton, 2001).

An industrial experiment

The collection was started by Alexander Orlow, who ran the Turmac factory in Zevenaar. By 1966 his experiment had already become well known, and he was interviewed by Time magazine. He bought both figurative and abstract art, and —possibly to his surprise—found that workers preferred the latter. There were complaints when favourite paintings were moved, which Orlow welcomed: “I know they really love them,” he said.

From the very start, Orlow set out to collect the best of contemporary art. But he did not pay stratospheric sums: instead, he recruited advice from Willem Sandberg, director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam from 1945-62, and one of the first important gallery directors in Europe to seek to emulate the Museum of Modern Art in New York by supporting the postwar avant-garde. Sandberg was followed by a succession of advisors of equivalent stature, each of whom brought their own special knowledge: Renilde Hammacher van den Brande, former chief curator of Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam; Wim Beeren, another former director of the Stedelijk, and finally Martijn Sanders, director of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and one of Holland’s leading cultural impresarios.

The collection includes examples of almost every important postwar art movement apart from Pop art, including a strong selection of work by CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) artists. It was also active in creating art, not just buying it: in 1974, it commissioned artists including Karel Appel, Alexander Calder, Victor Vasarely and Niki de Saint Phalle to design a series of tapestries that were woven in Lesotho, providing employment for hundreds of women there.

Four contemporary Chinese paintings from the collection were the first to be sold, coming under the hammer at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on 5 October. The highest price was earned by Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Family Portrait I, 1994, at $3m. This painting predates the three Bloodline paintings currently on show at London’s new Saatchi Gallery venue in its inaugural exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. The rest of the BAT collection is expected to be sold at auctions in early 2009 in Amsterdam, London, New York, Paris and Milan.

In Zevenaar, Mr de Ruiter has not given up hope of saving at least the essence of the collection. “I didn’t want a museum of modern art, there are several in our region,” he says. “I want to honour and keep in respect the story of this unique collection. Art is much more than stocks, a unique story has much more value than money, but unfortunately the board of BAT is too stupid to understand this.”

Last summer, Mr de Ruiter enjoyed one small victory. He received a tip-off about the sale of four Paris taxis decorated by artists in a project commissioned by the Stuyvesant Collection in 1982, including a “mirror” taxi by Michelangelo Pistoletto. In a matter of days he bought the four taxis on behalf of the town, and they were back in Zevenaar. Perhaps in years to come they will be all there is to remind the world that once, a unique art collection was built there.

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