Thursday, November 29, 2007

LaSalle collection OK

LaSalle photos to hang on

Bank of America says it will not sell off the 5,000-piece collection, but rather circulate it among local museums

LaSalle Bank's storied collection of fine-art photographs survived a perilous fire at the bank's Chicago headquarters in 2004.

Now it appears it also will survive Bank of America Corp.'s acquisition of LaSalle, which runs counter to the trend of mergers resulting in the liquidation of corporate art collections.

"We are not planning to sell anything from LaSalle. We are not planning to liquidate the photography collection," Rena DeSisto, Bank of America's arts and culture executive, told the Tribune on Wednesday. "We plan to keep it and make use of it in a way that will benefit the Chicago community and museum-goers across the country."

DeSisto said the bank plans to circulate portions of the collection among various museums so that public can see more of the photographs, which span the 165-year history of photography. Many are framed and hanging on the walls in the bank's public areas and offices.

Speculation was rampant that the merger might spell the end of the 5,000-piece collection, fueled in part because collections generally are sold off after mergers, and because corporate art collecting has generally declined in the past decade as activist investors, including hedge funds, have pushed managements to be more bottom-line oriented.

For example, hedge-fund operator Edward Lampert sold off the corporate art collection of Kmart Corp. and has reduced the number of works gracing the walls at Sears Holdings Corp.'s headquarters in Hoffman Estates.

After British Petroleum's acquisition of Amoco Corp., the Chicago-based oil company's art collection was downsized and some pieces were auctioned off, said BP spokesman Scott Dean. Various pieces were recirculated to other BP locations, and some works were sold and the proceeds given to charity.

MB Financial is selling off the art collection of First Oak Brook Bancshares Inc., which was an aggressive collector under the stewardship of Chief Executive Richard Rieser Jr.

And commodities trading firm Refco Inc. liquidated its art and photography collections after a financial scandal forced the Chicago company to seek bankruptcy protection. The same thing happened to Andersen's art holdings when the Chicago-based accounting giant collapsed in the wake of a federal indictment related to the Enron scandal.

So, the latest news about LaSalle's collection was greeted with relief. "That's terrific. I'm glad they understand the value of it," said Catherine Edelman, who owns an eponymous contemporary photography gallery in River North. "It would be a tragedy if this collection got disbursed. It's one of the most public corporate collections in the U.S., let alone Chicago."

Rod Slemmons, director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, agreed.

"The collection is a treasure. There's material in there from the beginning of photography from the 1840s," he said. "There is important documentation of Chicago post-fire, with historic prints. There is also a lot of contemporary work by Chicago and international people."

The worry that the collection was slated for a breakup wasn't limited to the art photography world. Requests for tours of the collection from bank employees as well as others have picked up in the past several months, a LaSalle source said.

A Bank of America spokesman said the concern was premature.

"Bank of America has one of the largest, most significant art collections in the world," said spokesman Scott Silvestri. "We believe our collection is an asset that should be shared with our customers in the communities we serve. The LaSalle collection is now part of the company's corporate art program and will continue to be used for the public benefit."

Curator, staff to stay for now

Carol Ehlers, the curator of the LaSalle photography collection, and her staff continue to be employees, although DeSisto declined to comment on whether that would continue in the future.

About 2,500 of LaSalle's 7,900 employees are expected to lose their jobs during the next two years, Bank of America said in September. More than 30 of LaSalle's executives, including its chief executive, have been hired by PrivateBank, a Lake Forest-based bank that this week raised $200 million in new capital for expansion purposes. Before the merger, LaSalle was the Chicago area's second-largest financial institution.

Photography collectors will be disappointed they won't have a chance to bid on a piece of LaSalle's legacy. "There would be a lot of excitement about the LaSalle collection going up for auction," said Paul Berlanga of the Stephen Daiter Gallery in River North. "These are my friends, and I would hate to see them out of work, but galleries thrive on this. Death and divorce brings these things back on the market."

The LaSalle collection could be worth between $5 million and $10 million, experts estimated, but it could fetch a lot more than that. Last year, a platinum print by influential American photographer Edward Steichen sold for more than $3 million at a Sotheby's auction.

What is now known as the LaSalle Bank collection was started in 1967 by Exchange National Bank President Samuel Sax. Sax hired photography expert Beaumont Newhall to build the collection. Exchange was taken over by Dutch-owned LaSalle National Bank in 1989, and the collection was passed on.

Under LaSalle parent ABN Amro, the collection continued to expand, with a special emphasis on contemporary photographers and Dutch photography. In addition to being a buyer, the bank sponsored the photography field in other ways, including funding exhibitions and co-publishing a book on Dutch photographer Rineke Dykstra with the Art Institute of Chicago.

Bank of America agreed in April to buy LaSalle for $21 billion.

The collection contains the work of more than 300 photographers, including heavyweights such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Its fate hung in the balance three years ago when a fire broke out in the LaSalle building. Six days passed before curator Ehlers was allowed a close-up look at the damage, but she was relieved to see that all but 50 photographs survived the fire.

Vaults protected works

Many of the most valuable pieces were stored in the bank's two temperature-controlled vaults -- one for black-and-white work and the other for color.

If Bank of America hadn't decided to retain the collection, it's unlikely it would have stayed intact. Five thousand pieces is too much for an individual collector to store, gallery owners say, and museums unlikely would be interested in acquiring someone else's vision.


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11:39 PM  

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