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The PaineWebber Art Collection

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One of the most striking qualities of contemporary art is its ability to shock, outrage and provoke its audience. Since these are characteristics that seem to be in direct opposition to the kind of public image that a large corporation seeks, it might seem anomalous for a corporation such as PaineWebber to be collecting contemporary art at all.
The PaineWebber Group's art program breaks many of the rules that are supposed to define corporate enterprise, and yet it remains very much a corporate program. This contradiction gives the collection, which has been correctly characterized as "strikingly avant garde" 1 a dimension of interest that goes beyond its high quality as a discriminating selection of contemporary art. And because the collection exists as an integral part of the environment at the company's New York headquarters, it also tells us something important about contemporary patronage and about how the art of our time is actually used and responded to by people who spend time living with it.
Perhaps I should begin by saying that I have been familiar with the PaineWebber art collection since 1985, and that I consider it to be one of the finest collections of contemporary art in America. It consists of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and sculptures by a wide range of contemporary and recent artists, American and foreign. Although the collection represents a broad spectrum of styles, it is not meant to provide a survey of contemporary art; the primary basis for the selection of individual works is quality rather than comprehensiveness. And although a number of well established artists are includedsuch as Georg Baselitz, Chuck Close, Lucian Freud, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein, Elizabeth Murray, Susan Rothenberg, and Frank Stellaa good deal of attention is given to younger, less well known artists, such as Caroll Dunham, Günther Förg, Damien Hirst, Jim Shaw, Lorna Simpson and Kiki Smith. The collection has clearly been put together with a relish for making discriminating judgments about what will hold up well over time, rather than simply following established reputations.
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Like most corporate collections, one of its functions is to enhance the prestige of the company, and this it seems to do quite effectivelyalthough, as we shall see, not in as uncomplicated a way as one might think. At the same time, the PaineWebber art collection is rather unusual. The selection of objects has been made almost entirely by Donald B. Marron, the firm's chairman and chief executive officer, and one of its primary purposes is to embellish the workplace. At any given time, most of the collection is hung along the corridors and in the offices of PaineWebber's corporate headquarters in New York City; both the size of the collection, and to some degree the dimensions of the works in it, have been determined by the pragmatic function.

In many ways, it is also a rather daring collection, especially within the sensitive world of corporate image making. As has been widely remarked, corporate collections frequently aim for a certain neutrality, what has been characterized as a form of visual Muzak or "white noise."2 They tend to focus on reassuring forms of representational art, such as landscapes and still lifes, or on rather cool and impersonal abstract art that avoids the expression of strong emotions.3 Indeed, corporate curators frequently explain that they avoid anything overtly political or controversial, especially images of nudes, religious subject matter or anything they consider to be "too abstract or crazy."4

The PaineWebber collection, by contrast, seems to override virtually all these taboos. It is not confined to a single school or style, such as realist landscapes or "cool," geometrical abstractions. Rather it is more like a private collection, driven by a desire for quality and remaining unapologetically personal in many of its choices. As a reflection of Marron's personal taste, for example, it contains virtually no Minimalist or Conceptual art, and it stays clear of funky assemblages and installations.