Deutsche Bank has a long recovery ahead after its crisis year of 2016. It is in the throes of painful restructuring and downsizing measures. And yet, two days before the annual general meeting, two men in charge of what might seem like peripheral activities for the bank seem amazingly relaxed.
Friedhelm Hütte is in charge of art at Deutsche Bank, and Thorsten Strauss is the bank’s global head of art, culture and sports. For all the bad press and dwindling stock prices, the pair has something to celebrate. A year from now, Deutsche Bank will open a culture forum at a prime location in Berlin, putting the bank’s vast art collection on public display.
The 18th century Prinzessinnenpalais, or Crown Princess Palace, sits between the State Opera and the Humboldt Forum on the Berlin avenue, Unter den Linden. It was destroyed in the Second World War, reconstructed as the Opera Café, and in 2014 acquired by the head of Springer publishing house, Mathias Döpfner.
Construction sites around the State Opera and the Humboldt Forum will soon be gone and the stretch of boulevard is likely to become Berlin’s most prominent promenade. Grand, imperial, and decidedly statesmanlike, it’s hard to imagine a more prestigious address for the struggling bank to present a brave face to the world.
There has been speculation for some time now over the future of this prime piece of real estate. The Berliner Tagesspiegel newspaper had hoped for a café– and wasn’t completely off the mark. The bank plans to include a café on the ground floor of the 3,000 square-meter, or 32,300 square-foot, property. It’s all part of an effort to bring a new audience to Deutsche Bank’s cultural social and sports activities.
“Having a showcase in Berlin would be a lucky break even for MOMA or the Tate Modern. Berlin is the cultural city of the moment.”
“We have been asking ourselves for a long time how we can make visible to the public a collection that has existed for over 30 years and is one of the largest and most important corporate collections worldwide,” Mr. Strauss says.
Thus far, Deutsche Bank’s collection of more than 50,000 works has been spread across 900 branches in 40 countries. Since 1997, the bank has run its Kunsthalle, a smaller art space on Unter den Linden. Until 2012 this was in cooperation with the New York Guggenheim Museum, since then independently.
The bank also supports young artists and selects an artist of the year. Its work to promote music includes decades of support for the Berlin Philharmonic. And it is engaged in education programs.
These commitments are honored even in difficult times. “Both customers and employees expect a high degree of engagement in cultural and social areas from Deutsche Bank,” Mr. Hütte says. “That’s viewed positively, as opinion polls show us every year.”
Still, occasionally talking about doing good is one thing. Taking action is another. It would be surprising if the costly use of such a high-end venue had universal support at a company forced to cut 9,000 jobs in its ongoing restructuring process. Yet Mr. Strauss insists staff are behind the move.
“The tenor was that the employees are finally getting more from the collection,” he says.
Employees and customers will have free access to the fruits of Mr. Hütte’s skill as a collector. He bought Gerhard Richters and Sigmar Polkes when neither artist had any significance on the art market. His principle of buying newcomers rather than established artists means the collection has developed a distinctive profile.
“It will be much, much more than just a change of location or an expansion of the Kunsthalle,” Mr. Hütte says. “Over 19 years with the Kunsthalle, we have consistently heard visitors ask, ‘And where is the collection?’ Our philosophy is now to share this treasure with our customers, the public and employees.”
The plan is to have thematically focused parts of the collection showing on an 11-month rotation. They will include works never previously shown in Germany.
Mr. Hütte also plans to expand partnerships with important museums worldwide: “Having a showcase in Berlin would be a lucky break even for MOMA or the Tate Modern. Berlin is the cultural city of the moment.”
He won’t comment on the project’s budget, except to say they don’t plan to bulk up staff but make do with the art, culture and sports division’s 24 current employees. The as-yet-unnamed forum is supposed to pay its way with its own resources – and even make money in the long term.
Mr. Strauss believes in a change in the bank’s role in social and arts collaborations, especially given the crisis. “The first question potential partners always used to ask was how much money can you give as a bank? But we are now in a situation where we have to reinvent ourselves. We won’t simply give money but we will look for ways to work with our collection and maintain our commitment to culture and sports.”
Many details – such as entrance fees – are still unclear. But Mr. Hütte says the aim is to have a popular impact. “We want to reach as broad a public as possible – precisely the opposite of art for the elite – without neglecting quality. We see the project as a dialog with people, with architecture and with history.” Educational programs will be aimed at making high culture a less intimidating prospect.
Despite the euphoria, both men are aware that, given the bank’s present situation, the timing for such a gesture of largesse is problematic.
“We can accomplish it now, in times when no one expects something like this from us and everyone thinks we are preoccupied with internal issues,” Mr. Strauss says. “That is deliberately intended to be counter-cyclical. Not everyone will like it. But I see a huge benefit in educating the individual. Or to put it loftily, it is to be a place that provides something for the soul. We owe that to the public.”
Optimism at its finest, perhaps. But it is quite possible the Berlin palace might have a kind of Elbphilharmonie effect. “It too will be a source of pride,” Mr. Strauss says.
Regine Müller covers arts and culture for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: email@example.com