The Fleming family's private art collection has moved from its Scottish roots to a modern London base. Housed next to the family-owned private bank in stylish Mayfair, Suzy Bibko argues it's not only a must-see, it's a must-have for all family businesses.
Suzy Bibko is editor of Families in Business.
The world of art oozes haughtiness and arrogance, or so I thought. So, what a surprise when I arrived at the gallery of the Fleming family's private collection, The Fleming Collection, to find a down-to-earth curator who seemed to hold no pretences or affectations and was thoroughly enthusiastic about explaining to me what they were trying to do there. I'm converted – and convinced that every family firm has gotta have art.
What started almost by accident has turned into one of the most complete and prized collections of Scottish art in the world. Deciding they needed something to adorn the bare walls when their original bank, Robert Fleming & Co, moved into new offices in London in 1968, a quick decision was made. Proud of their Scottish heritage (the bank was founded by Robert Fleming, who was born in Dundee in 1845), the family charged one of their directors, David Donald, with buying paintings solely by Scottish artists, as a corporate collection for the bank. At the time, Scottish art was not really collected outside Scotland, and even in Scotland it wasn't very fashionable. As a result, Donald, who had a good eye and the luxury of buying with neither a budget nor a committee, was able to purchase paintings by artists such as the Glasgow Boys, the Scottish Colourists and Peploe for a few hundred pounds each (today, they would sell for tens of thousands of pounds, if you could even find them on the market).
Donald continued purchasing art (as a sideline to his regular banking duties) until his death in 1985, when another director, Bill Smith, replaced him. Smith's first task was to move the now formidable collection to another new office, which had been built specifically with the collection in mind. The new building was like a museum, with a central glass atrium and a glass lift, allowing you to see the paintings on every wall from any angle.
However, in 2000, Chase Manhattan Bank (now part of JP Morgan Chase) purchased Robert Fleming & Co, and a cry went up in the media and art world about the fate of the collection. The British papers ran stories of impending doom with headlines screaming "Americans break up world's most important collection" and suggesting that the Scottish Parliament should take charge of the art. Suddenly, Scottish art was front-page news.
Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation
While the world speculated what would become of the collection, the Flemings knew all along that the paintings would never be victim to the vagaries of the corporate world. Like a good family business, the Flemings had planned ahead, knowing that Robert Fleming & Co was not going stay an independent bank forever. The plan that had been formed allowed the Fleming family to purchase the entire collection (remember, this was actually a corporate collection owned by the bank) at market value, whenever that might be, via their newly-established Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation (named for two branches of the family that funded it).
In April 2000, the Flemings put the plan into action, buying the 1,000-piece collection for about £8 million. Six months later, the family set up Fleming Family & Partners (FF&P), another family-owned private bank, in London's Mayfair. While the Foundation is a separate entity from FF&P, they are intertwined, quite literally, through The Fleming Collection.
Today, the Collection is housed in a gallery that sits directly behind and is adjoined to the FF&P offices – a dream location not just because of the proximity to the Fleming family's bank, but also because it is physically close to many other major galleries on London's art route (London's Royal Academy of the Arts is just down the road, and the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are a short walk). The gallery is leased by the Foundation from FF&P, and in turn, the Foundation leases paintings to FF&P to decorate their offices.
But why have a gallery at all? Why not just use the paintings to decorate the bank? Or put them in storage, to be kept safe while they rise in value? After all, this was now a private collection and the family had no real responsibility to make it available to the public.
A faithful following
Selina Skipwith, Keeper of Art for the Collection for the past ten years, says that the Foundation would much rather have the paintings on a wall than in storage, and they also wanted to raise the profile of Scottish art. As a result, she runs the Collection like a museum, lending the paintings to many other museums and galleries, changing its own gallery space exhibitions on a quarterly basis, holding lectures and renting out the space for after-hour cocktail parties. And it's gone from strength to strength from day one, though she wasn't always sure that things would pan out that way. "The gallery opened its doors on Burns' Night, 25 January 2002, so we're now celebrating our fifth anniversary," says Skipwith. "And when we first opened our doors, we weren't really sure what to expect. We had no idea whether we were going to get two people or 200."
Today, the gallery has about 100,000 visitors a year, many of whom have been back more than once. "People seek it out because it's different," explains Skipwith. "And when they've been once, they always come back again. So we have a faithful following. We've also had fantastic press coverage because we're neutral. When you see coverage of big exhibitions at the Royal Academy or the Tate, for instance, journalists often take a stance based on whether they like the directors there; there's quite a lot of politics involved. But we're a bit neutral. We don't use taxpayers' money, we're privately funded, we don't charge for exhibitions. We can also be much more specialised with our exhibitions."
"We're not having to worry about if we get 10,000 or 50,000 visitors for an exhibition; we can just go ahead and do whatever exhibitions we want, and do it on quality rather than on what will draw the numbers. It's a luxury that museums don't have. There are lots of things they would love to do, but they can't guarantee they're going to get blockbuster numbers. It affects their revenue so much, and art funding in general is pretty scarce. It does mean that there is a certain danger in some of these exhibitions being dumbed down. For instance, there is a Kylie Minogue exhibition on now at the Victoria & Albert Museum (that features clothing and memorabilia from her concerts). There's a big debate on whether these museums should really being doing exhibits like that. So, we're quite lucky that we can just put on quality exhibitions. As a result, we get lots of museum staff coming to our exhibitions because it's the only chance they actually get to see works by these artists."
This formula works well and has meant that Skipwith is in a position envied by many. Not only does she get to put on the exhibits she wants, but also like Donald and Smith before her, she has neither a committee nor a budget when it comes to buying art. "I have no committee, it's just me buying," confirms Skipwith. "I do report to five trustees, as we're a charity, two of whom are family members. But I get to choose what to buy." And what is she presently purchasing? "I'm mainly buying contemporary art, because we want to keep it a living collection. But I also fill historical gaps along the way. I'm always looking. We're quite lucky that we're so well known now. And we have a very good relationship with the art schools and museums in Scotland. Museums will contact us if they are aware of something that they can't get funding together for, so that we are aware of the painting as well (in case we might want to buy it). Because one day we might lend that painting to them."
A supportive family
While Skipwith seems genuinely pleased and justifiably proud of the Collection's success, what about the Fleming family – are they happy they decided to forego the storage route and deal with the formalities and potential headaches of running a Foundation and gallery? "Yes, they're happy they did it," reveals Skipwith. "And they're happy for us to carry on with the programme. Not everything might be their taste, but they realise they're not trying to control it. It's a great resource for the bank, as well, because we always get fantastic coverage, and the Collection has the Fleming name on it, so it's a great resource the bank can use."
But, as mentioned before, if the bank is a separate entity, don't the waters ever get muddied with such a close connection? "We are completely separate," stresses Skipwith, "but we all work together. If FF&P wants to sponsor an exhibition, they can. And if they want to use the gallery for entertainment, they can. And if they have clients arriving early or because an FF&P employee is stuck in a meeting, the clients are free to view the gallery. And people often appreciate it because business people hardly ever have the time to look at art. Having a proper exhibition on their doorstep is fantastic. They're very supportive of everything we do."
So, should every corporate collection be turned into museum? Skipwith and the Flemings certainly make it sound like it's a piece of cake, after all. "I often get asked about whether this should be the future of corporate collections," admits Skipwith. "If you have a collection that is museum quality, then yes, it is worth saving and doing something with. But companies often have collections where there is a lot of stuff, but it isn't necessarily quality stuff. And that's when you have to be a bit ruthless. When the family set up the Foundation, we sold off about 250 paintings to bring it down to the core selection. Obviously, in the corporate collection, in London we had the real museum pieces, but the overseas offices had more decorative, commercial pictures rather than museum pieces."
"There is a point where you look at what you've got and think yes, I did used to like that one, but I don't anymore, I've moved on. It's a natural thing; the longer you collect, the more expert your eye, and you know what you like. We've very lucky, unlike museums, in that we can do that. It's difficult for them. They've been funded with public money and have been gifted things by the public. We also know that if we sell something, the money will go back into the collection, into buying art." After a long pause, Skipwith turns to a painting on a wall near her desk. "And art is a great ice breaker. If have an awkward pause, you can always make some sort of comment about a painting," she says with a smile. "Do you like it?"