In early September, workers removed the hexagonal red-and-white logos of HSBC Bank piece by piece from the top of Buffalo’s tallest office building, leaving behind only a ghostly outline.
The faint lines of the logo, still visible on the building’s mud-brown skin like a lasered-off tattoo, speak to the slow dissolution of one of the most important cultural-corporate relationships in the city’s history.
That relationship was at its height in the middle of the 20th century, when Marine Midland Bank was chaired by the great Buffalo art patron and Albright-Knox Art Gallery namesake Seymour H. Knox Jr., whose appreciation for modern art ran almost as deep as his pockets. The bank, which was fully bought out by HSBC in the late ’80s, amassed an impressive art collection during its long life, and HSBC continued that tradition.
Now, as the UK-based banking conglomerate scales down its Buffalo presence and empties the tower that once bore its name, much of that art is trickling back into the community. For the past several weeks, the bank has been donating parts of its vast collection of more than 1,000 artworks to places like Roswell Park Cancer Institute and selling off the rest through local art dealer Dana Tillou.
Some of the most compelling evidence of Marine Midland and HSBC’s prosperity and role in the region’s cultural life is on view in Tillou’s happily cluttered gallery at the corner of Franklin and Virginia streets. Though some pieces by major modern artists Sol LeWitt, Victor Vasarely and others have already been sold, the bulk of the collection remains. A fascinating selection of prints and paintings from the bank’s massive trove is on view in Tillou’s space through the beginning of December.
Any trip to Tillou’s gallery, a house of constantly rotating curiosities on the creaky ground floor of a handsome Allentown mansion, is bound to hold a few surprises. And this show is no different.
The first one hits you right when you walk in the door – an appealing 1939 portrait of a seated woman by the Hungarian artist Hugo Scheiber – that you can easily imagine hanging in a Marine Midland executive’s office. There is work by well-known Buffalo artists Charles Clough and Martha Visser’t Hooft, alongside prints by Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana.
When you pass into the second of the two major galleries – under a sign that reads “When you buy quality, you only cry once” – you’ll encounter more worthy work: a print of a lush Colleen Browning painting of a train pulling into the 59th Street subway station in New York City, an elegant monoprint by Ken Buhler and jarring sliver and yellow collage by Beverly Pepper.
Plenty of the work came from branches throughout the region – the bank once had 400 branches in New York – and it’s pleasing to think of a time when important original artwork adorned the walls of such places.
In today’s post-recession economy, it’s difficult to imagine any corporation dedicating as much time or money to the aesthetic experiences of its small-time customers as Marine Midland did. (See the bland corporate art hanging in your nearest Bank of America.)
The exhibition, intentionally or not, serves as a reflection on the decline of corporate involvement in culture. To be fair, HSBC still contributes a great deal to the local economy and cultural community, and M&T Bank remains a model corporate citizen. But it’s tough to deny that the age of philanthropy from the likes of Knox and his contemporaries is long gone, and our museums, galleries and other cultural institutions are struggling to make up the difference.
On the other hand, the appearance of all this interesting work at once makes you wonder what else is locked up in Buffalo attics and private collections formed at a time when the city’s industrial economy was booming. The recent donation of $11 million from the estate of Peggy Pierce Elfvin to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery hints at the idea that there may be significant chunks Buffalo money – and likely plenty of storied artwork – that remains to see the light of day.