American Enterprise Group (AEG) reopened its historic Sixth Avenue headquarters last year after a long $30-35 million restoration of the original Gordon Bunshaft building. The famous architect’s design featured two walls without windows and two with ceiling-to-floor natural light. That convinced Watson Powell Jr., the CEO of parent company American Republic at the time, to brighten the walls by investing in modern art. He did so at a most opportune time. Modern and pop art, the focus of the 380 pieces the company owns, were considerably more affordable in the 1960s when Powell began collecting.
The art in the collection was created between the mid 1950s and early 1990s. There is also a Harley Davidson Knucklehead motorcycle from 1947. Illustrating the timely manner with which the collection was acquired, Chairman of the Board Mike Abbott said that the company archives include a letter from Andy Warhol requesting an advance on his $6,000 commission.
One Warhol piece would later be swapped for the company’s signature work – Amaldo Pomodoro’s “Sphere Within Sphere,” which greets visitors at the outside entrance. Its companion piece does likewise at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
“The fact that we share distinctive work with the United Nations is a testament to the vision of prior management team members and having a long-term focus. It really is a terrific story,” said AEG CEO Tom Swank. The sphere is the heaviest piece in the collection but not the largest. That honor goes to Tony King’s “Cleveland $1000,” an oil, acrylic and graphite rendition of a $1,000 bill. When the collection was being moved to temporary headquarters during the restoration, movers were stunned that it fit through a lobby door. Other pieces had to be moved with cranes and forklifts.
The collection includes all but six of the original 74 pieces Powell bought in the early 1960s, plus some 300 others added since then. It has been evaluated for insurance purposes, but the company isn’t interested in publicly estimating its total value. It’s a big number, though, with Claes Oldenberg, Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein represented indoors and Ivan Chermayeff’s “Construction” anchoring the delightful sculpture garden. “We certainly could not afford to buy this collection today,” Abbott admitted.
The art includes historical subject matter such as paintings of cattle drives, 1920’s baseball and industrial rail yards, as well as sculptures of antique radios, fans, irons, covered wagons, coal chutes and railroad cabooses. It also has a broad base in pop and abstraction. Iowa is represented by pieces from Byron Burford, Julius Schmidt and Larry Zox. There are some interesting takes on famous masters. John Clem Clarke contributed a version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Warhol delivered a take on Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Annunciation.” Bernard Langlais’ wooden “Cow” resembles ancient Greek and Cretan images. Frank Gardner’s “Milkmaid” is a stunning version of a Vermeer, constructed with hundreds of squares of fabric.
If the collection has a predominant commonality, it’s probably that it’s all fun. Oldenburg contributed a mechanical ice bag. John Salt’s “Car on a Cinderblock” causes gleeful pauses. Donn Moulton’s “Apples” hang on the wall of the cafeteria, looking better than anything in the vending machines. Masaki Sato’s New York City “Newsstands” frame elevator doors. Barry Flanagan’s “Musical Hare on Crescent and Bell” is cousin to his “Thinker” in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Some paintings, like the Gardner, are so mesmerizing that they must be placed where people are not distracted by them. Art is hung everywhere, in tiny conference rooms and even restrooms.
Swank thinks this is great for morale. “As an employee, while you may have seen pieces in the collection a number of times, you often look at them in different ways. Recognizing that different view gets you to think and stretch yourself mentally. I believe the collection is positive for the morale of our employees and enhances the approach to our business. It brings variety, color and diversity into our work place. It also helps us to think creatively about how we can provide value to our customers and our business.”