The Hiscox Collection comprises approximately 600 works on display across the company’s offices in the UK, Europe and USA. One of the latest acquisitions was 541 días, a photographic series of five portraits by Chilean artist Inés Molina Navea, who was one of the finalists in the Aesthetica Art Prize Exhibition 2014. In these digital portraits Molina Navea superimposes details taken from photographs of up to five different faces to create images of people who have never existed. We talk to Whitney Hintz, independent adviser and Curator of the Hiscox Collection, previously Associate Director at Frith Street Gallery, about the Collection and how she uses art to enhance the working environment.
A: Do you know which art work started the Hiscox Collection?
WH: It was a watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson c 1800 entitled The Meeting of an Insurance Company after a heavy loss. It was in the 1970s and it was purchased by Robert Hiscox and at the time he was buying things very much on his own will, he didn’t really have an advisor and that was the basis of collection at the time, that’s where it started.
A: What do you look for when adding to the collection?
WH: I try to find things that are going to stand out well on a wall. When I start searching, I look for things that interest me. Then I consider whether Robert will like the piece and whether it will suit a corporate context. Because we’re buying for our offices, and we have everything on display, we have to purchase works that are visually striking. I also look for art that has a story behind it, or an idea. I certainly want to question people and for people to question what they’re looking at; I veer away from anything that is considered wallpaper art. The underlying purpose of buying an artist’s work is to create a more stimulating, enjoyable working environment for our employees.
A: How do you think the pieces impact upon the working environment?
WH: How people respond can vary. For instance, we have photographs by Richard Billingham, one of our earlier purchases in the 1990s, and they have made people laugh. The images depict his family while he was living as an art student. His parents were alcoholics, so the photographs are very honest portrayals of family life and quite tough to look at. They always cause a stir when people see them. They are hanging in our boardroom on the top floor in the London office, and that’s where we have formal lunches. We’ve had a few requests for them to be removed because they put people off their lunch, but I refuse to move them because I think that the art makes for an interesting meeting – and you certainly won’t forget a meeting at Hiscox, will you?
A: What do you want the staff at Hiscox to take from the art around them?
WH: I want people to be affected by the artwork, whether they feel strongly against it or not. Our office must be memorable, quite unlike other corporate environments. People should feel they have something to look at on their walls, other than a whiteboard and a calendar. I want to create an uplifting setting: after all, it is a luxury to go into an office and have stunning art on the walls. Even though we have had the collection for a while, I don’t think the staff has become blasé about it, which is good, and I think it has to do with the work that we collect.
A: When you’re acquiring works, do you think about the office space or do you respond to a work first and then find a place for it?
WH: I respond to the work first and then find a place. At the moment we have a lot happening in Europe and we are opening a number of offices that require art. We have a new space in Munich, for example, and we also have offices in Lisbon, Spain and Madrid, which are all getting bigger. As a result, I am on a purchase drive to find enough work to just meet the minimal requirements for a new office. Everyone expects when a new office opens that it comes complete with artwork, which is difficult because we don’t buy in bulk – we buy art when we come across something we like. I’m certainly looking at more work at the moment because of the demand, but generally we don’t add to the collection just because we have a wall free.
A: How did you find the transition from your role as associate director at Frith Street Gallery to curator of the Hiscox Collection?
WH: It was very strange at first, because at Frith Street Gallery I always worked closely with artists. But when I moved, I didn’t have that relationship any more and lost the direct contact I had had with them. I do miss that, but in a way I have a much more satisfying relationship, because I have the means to actually buy their art and support a cause. People like you more than, say, an art dealer. I also had to learn to look at art differently because I was working with one programme. I didn’t really go to other galleries because, when you work in a gallery, you tend to just focus on your own shows. When I moved to Hiscox, I started to go to galleries again, and I enjoy art so much more now because I am looking at it in a different way.
A: What inspired the acquisition of Inés Molina Navea’s 541 dias, which appeared in the Aesthetica Art Prize earlier this year?
WH: I went to see the series during the exhibition and I really admired the way she had composed each portrait. They nod to Vermeer and old master portraiture in that they’re very formal. Cherie Federico, the editor and director of Aesthetica, explained who the artist was and the fact that they were composite photographs. The portraits made me think about the veil and the assumptions we make about it, the way we judge people, or view someone who is concealing their face. Due to Cherie’s explanation, I found 541 dias most provocative; it raises a lot of questions that are very relevant today.
A: Where would you like to take the Hiscox collection in the future?
WH: It’s so hard to say because I have no real agenda. In a way it’s quite nice to discover someone, and a great part of the job is having that freedom to look around and find things and then have the space to explore the art further. In the broader scheme of things, I continue to try and engage with the company through art. The collection is very much a part of the company’s identity and has been for a long time and I want to continue the strong connection between Hiscox and the arts. It’s really important to the company and its image, and this is done through art events, sponsorship, acquisitions and staff engagements.
A: You are involved in a number of creative initiatives as a board member of Crossrail Art Programme and the annual public outdoor exhibitions Sculpture in the City. Are there any other artistic projects you’d like to like to become more involved with in the future?
WH: I love commissioning. I think it’s a really hard thing to do. The process is quite difficult and I’m involved in it through Crossrail and Sculpture in the City. I think it’s a really exciting thing for an artist to be commissioned to do work and have free range. I see that happening in Crossrail: it’s a great programme for artists because there is such a healthy budget. So I guess I’m enjoying the public art side; it’s a nice counterbalance to the collection. I love advising people, whether it’s a company or an individual, and it makes me enthusiastic about going to work.
To find out more about Hiscox, visit www.hiscox.co.uk.
For further information about the Aesthetica Art Prize, head to www.aestheticamagazine.com/artprize.
1. Inés Molina Navea, 541 días (2013). Shortlisted artist in the Aesthetica Art Prize.