Silicon Valley tech companies take novel approaches to art investment

Silicon Valley’s success stories are applying their non-corporate ethos to art investment, finding innovative ways of building their collections


Silicon Valley, California

Traditionally, America’s wealthiest corporations have mainly built up collections of paintings and sculpture, usually by established artists. But this newly rich generation is doing things its own way by commissioning unknown painters to make work for the company walls, hiring staff artists and exploring the link between data and art.

Many of these young enterprises have achieved wealth that rivals the top corporations in the country. The social network Facebook had a market value of $100.7bn in 2013, according to Bloomberg—more than the Bank of America, which the Fortune 500 estimated at $100.1bn that year. Bloomberg analysts valued the social media site Twitter at $24.9bn when it launched its public offering in November—more than the sportswear giant Nike, which was worth around $24.1bn last year, according to the Fortune 500.

The technology companies’ idiosyncratic approach to business is translating into their art buying. “It’s about breaking the rules,” says Danielle Wohl, an art adviser to Facebook. Since 2012 the company has run a residency programme, inviting artists to paint the walls of Facebook’s offices in Menlo Park, California.

One of the most recent works is a kaleidoscopic 9ft by 25ft mural painted by the San Jose-based artist Juan Carlos Araujo, in February, for the online publisher Mixbook. “When we have a mural that is vast in scope, we feel vast inside when we see it. Being in uncommon spaces encourages us to think in uncommon ways,” Wohl says. She is also working with the domain-name registrar GoDaddy to commission six artists from the San Francisco Bay Area to paint a series of columns and walls throughout the company’s property.

“We believe data can be art,” says Bennett Porter, the vice president of marketing and communications for an online questionnaire developer, SurveyMonkey. The company, which collects 70GB of data each day, is commissioning a computer-encoded work of art to display on a large-scale monitor in its lobby. “We believe there’s a humanity in the data that we help people to collect, and we wanted to partner with an artist to help express this fact,” Porter says.

Other companies see art as a branding tool. “The purpose of art on corporate walls is to provide an ever-present symbol of the [company’s] vision,” says a Reddit spokesman. The social news site hired an “on-staff artist”, Dante Orpilla, in November. So far, he has painted the company’s mascot—an alien called Snoo—on a wall of the company’s offices in Los Angeles.

“These companies are still trying to figure it out,” says Chris Perez, the owner of the San Francisco gallery Ratio 3. Many in the technology industry are asking why they need art in their office, and “why it should cost $80,000 as opposed to $800; it’s a slow process,” he says. “There’s so much hype about Silicon Valley, but it’s been a hard nut to crack.”

Cultural interest will develop and become more serious over time, says the San Francisco art adviser Sabrina Buell. She points to the fact that several companies are “now looking to significant architects to redo their campuses”, such as Sir Norman Foster’s proposed $5bn Apple headquarters in Cupertino and Frank Gehry’s designs for the new Facebook campus, which is expected to be the largest open-plan office in the world when it opens later this year (no commissions have yet been confirmed for the space).

Rick Friedman, the president of the Silicon Valley Contemporary fair, which launched last month (see box), is confident that wealthy people from the technology industry will soon begin to buy art in a more traditional way. “These guys have ungodly amounts of money, so if we show some them some really dramatic and compelling pieces, there’s no reason they can’t buy.”


Silicon Valley gets its own fair

The Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair launched last month with the intention of attracting wealth from the nearby technology industry. “This will be exploratory for a lot of companies, but they’ll get to come and see what is out there,” says Rick Friedman, the Hamptons Expo Group president who organised the fair. The debut event took place at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center (10-13 April), with 46 international galleries participating in the main event. A special moving-image section, organised by the Los Angeles-based journalist Paul Young, drew another seven, including Marianne Boesky and Honor Fraser. Fittingly for a fair taking place in America’s technology heartland, some works sold in the digital currency bitcoins, including Off Limits but Blessed by the Fed, 2014, by Dana Louise Kirkpatrick. The mixed media work sold on opening night for 40 bitcoins at KM Fine Arts.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'New tech, new art'