YOU could be mistaken for believing AIB's 370m saleand-leaseback of its Ballsbridge headquarters was engineered to provide art consultant and curator Frances Ruane a clean canvas to display the bank's striking collection of modern Irish art. The light filled atrium and clean-lined hallways of the new building evoke the atmosphere of a gallery, such is the extent and quality of the work on show . . . which forms a kind of hidden asset for the country's biggest bank.
A native of Massapequa, New York with a robust Long Island accent and the confidence to match, Ruane came to Ireland in 1973 to live with her Irish husband, working as an art critic and lecturer until a gig curating The Delighted Eye exhibition in London in 1980 brought her to the attention of the AIB board, which was looking for a "more structured way of collecting" Irish art.
The result after more than 28 years is a collection of more than 3,000 pieces ranging from old school standards like Jack B Yeats, Roderic O'Conor and Harry Kernoff to more recent favourites such as Martin Gale, Nick Miller and Alice Maher.
The museum-quality collection may be a concrete asset, but AIB doesn't exactly treat it like one. The bank doesn't borrow against its value, hasn't securitised it and doesn't trade the pieces. In fact, disposals happen only when an opportunity for a better acquisition of the same artist arises. The caretakers . . . curator Ruane and the in-house administrator Maureen Porteous . . . profess not even to know the exact value of the work. Paraphrasing former AIB chair Niall Crowley, Ruane says the value of an asset is only important if you intend to trade it and "the bank doesn't intend to sell".
The unofficial rationale for this position is that AIB, as the largest bank in the country and a representative of Irish business abroad, has the means and responsibility to preserve some aspect of Ireland's cultural heritage. With an average of roughly 100 purchases a year since the buying programme started in late 1979, the bank is certainly doing its bit for corporate social responsibility in this arena . . . to say nothing of its material support for working artists.
But the collection is definitely a tool for brand extension and the projection of corporate values, too, in that the world-class art acts as a surrogate for a world class bank.
"You can't underestimate the number of people who see the work, "says Ruane, alluding not just to the generous lending and touring policies for thework, but to its ubiquity in AIB's own building. Jaw-dropping paintings and quirky sculptures are literally everywhere: private offices, hallways, meeting rooms, the canteen . . . even beside the elevators.
And not alone is the work on display wherever AIB has a market presence . . . London, Warsaw, Paris, New York, Sydney - but the collection is a key element in the entertainment of corporate and private banking customers. A client who is ushered to chief executive Eugene Sheehy's office or the board room on the fifth floor of the bank's Ballsbridge headquarters will pass work by international superstars such as Sean Scully and Robert Ballagh. Former chief executive and current director Michael Buckley hung only the latest acquisitions in his office, while Sheehy selects from the collection on the basis of colour . . . hence the Le Brocquy tapestry that decorates his wall today.
Independent Irish art experts, consulted by the Sunday Tribune, have estimated the collection is worth between 80m and 100m, with the older pieces the most valuable.
Despite the impressive rollcall, Ruane maintains a simple acquisition strategy: the best available examples of the best modern Irish artists.
At first that meant buying the recent history of Irish art, but in the last eight years AIB has been in the market exclusively for living artists such as recent additions Isabel Nolan, Amanda Coogan and Corban Walker "We've been so lucky in that we haven't had trophy collectors, " Ruane explains, referring to the chairman and chief executives of the last three decades. "Our budget has always been remarkably small and we bought a lot before London discovered Irish art. We're aware it's shareholders' money, so mostly we buy younger artists now."
Just how much shareholders' money is a matter of utmost secrecy, however. The bank says this is for security reasons, but given that Sheehy walks unescorted to work each day, it's hard to accept that explanation at face value.
AIB won't disclose the insurance premiums it pays on the collection either, although it will admit to valuing the work . . . individually and collectively . . . "at least" once a year. It's on the balance sheet, but not broken out.
Considering some pieces would have appreciated by a factor of ten or more in the last 20 years . . . a sturdy return on investment . . . the bank could afford to crow a little more loudly.
AIB has named Joy Gerrard, Eoin McHugh, Jackie Nickerson and Margaret O'Brien to the shortlist for the 20,000 AIB Prize, which will be awarded on 19 May.
The winner will be commissioned to contribute a new work to the bank's collection .