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LOS ANGELES — In Hito Steyerl’s immersive video installation “Factory of the Sun” (2015), Deutsche Bank has all but taken over Germany and, in attempt to accelerate the speed of light and thus drastically improve high-frequency trading, is relying on forced labor. It is also violently disposing of anti-accelerationist protesters. One bank executive goes from denying to justifying the killing of a protester by drone. The whole film has an addictive, almost festive energy that runs alongside its darkly plausible plotline. Steyerl’s tack, as critic Cameron Hu put it in C Magazine, “is not the exposure of concealed malevolence in the world system […] but an intensely focused presentation of what we already know to be the case.”
Yet Steyerl’s work likely wouldn’t have felt so sharp and auspicious if we weren’t mostly looking past “what we already know.” While Deutsche Bank has been under increased scrutiny after federal investigations into potential money-laundering lapses, its art world involvement is mostly relegated to footnotes or brief, if cutting, mentions in art world press. This is not unique — although figures like defense industry tycoon Warren Kanders have recently come under art world fire, other corporate sponsors and big donors (UBS, the Resnicks) regularly receive the same look-the-other-way-treatment as Deutsche Bank. But now that the Frieze art fair is turning sweet 16 and returning to Los Angeles, and the bank, its biggest sponsor almost since the start, is scrambling to restructure in the wake of controversies and mismanagement, it seems as good a time as any to look a little closer.
In 2015, the same year that Steyerl’s “Factory” debuted in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Deutsche Bank was the main sponsor of the pavilion in 2007, and has supported other biennial projects since), Deutsche Bank’s ArtMag published a probing article about Okwui Enwezor, the curator of the biennale’s main group exhibition. The article, which described the (now late) Nigerian-born, New York- and Munich-based Enwezor as “polite” and “pensive,” focused on the curator’s interest in global disquiet and inequality. “But how credible can criticism of the market and the art market be coming from a star curator like Enwezor?” asked the article. “How sincere can one’s criticism be if one is part of the problem in a certain respect?” Coming from the brand mag of a bank whose art collecting is tied up in its global marketing agenda, this was an impressive sidestep.
Frieze magazine, founded in 1991 by Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, launched its first art fair in London’s Regent’s Park in 2003. They have said that they simply wanted London to have a decent art fair, and to put art in the park. “We love going to art fairs and sitting up till four in the morning arguing about art with people,” Sharp recalled thinking at the time, conjuring a freewheeling image hard to reconcile with Frieze’s current elite trade show atmosphere and ticket prices ($125 for one-day general admission to Frieze Los Angeles galleries and programs; $25 to access only the programs on either Saturday or Sunday). Deutsche Bank signed on as a sponsor in 2004, the same year that it also sponsored an exhibition in the Grand Banking Hall on Wall Street featuring artworks selected by an array of celebrity curators (Russell Simmons, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Diane von Furstenberg). Back in 2003 and 2004, ticket prices were around £12, and Damien Hirst was not yet the resident of a £34 million mansion that overlooks the very park where the London fair still plays out.
When Frieze expanded into New York in 2012, Deutsche Bank’s Private Wealth Management arm helped fund the move and then again supported Frieze’s inaugural Los Angeles fair in 2019. The bank and art fair were “continuing a shared commitment and understanding of the unique role contemporary art plays in today’s globalized culture,” according to press releases. Jonathan Harris, in his book on the global art market, called such “high-minded self-justifications” exemplary of “what might be called the ‘global text’ of the contemporary art world.” In other words, its international marketing spin.
Tom Clarke, one of the managing directors at Deutsche Bank Wealth Management, explained the investment in the art fair more pragmatically, saying that supporting Frieze also elevates the bank’s brand. Some clients who attend Frieze are already art collectors; some are interested in becoming involved with art, said Clarke, and for others, it is a chance to learn more about the bank while networking with a certain class of clientele. An article from July 2019 on Private Banker International’s website explained Deutsche Bank’s choice to continue supporting art after announcing 18,000 employee layoffs by pointing out that “[h]igh net worth clients regularly invest in art […] so are reassured when their bank or wealth manager does so too.”
Deutsche Bank was founded in 1870 with the goal of facilitating trade between Germany and other countries, and early on, it helped finance railroads and other international infrastructure projects. Its involvement in art arguably began, peripherally, in the years leading up to World War II, when the bank helped Hitler expropriate the businesses and assets of Jewish Germans (it also helped the Nazis fund construction projects, Auschwitz included). In one particular case, recounted by historian Harold James in his book Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War Against the Jews, the bank helped arrange for the forcible sale of the Hirschland family’s assets, including the bank the family had run since 1841 and their art — a Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Caspar David Friedrich, among other paintings. While James did find evidence that Deutsche Bank’s Nazi-era chairman Hermann Josef Abs had been approached by and met with resistance leaders, Abs ultimately “decided not to be a hero,” according to the historian. The bank officially apologized for helping Nazis in the 1990s, 20 years after the artist Hans Haacke tried to include a damning biography of Chairman Abs in a 1974 show at the Cologne Wallraf-Richartz Museum (the work was censored by the museum’s director).
Deutsche Bank began collecting art in earnest in 1978, at a time when the bank was pushing to raise its profile in certain international markets, and when US Corporate sponsorship and philanthropy were becoming increasingly widespread as dealers began to market art as an asset. In 1997, the bank opened a gallery in Berlin, the Deutsche Guggenheim, to host exhibitions in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The Guggenheim partnership ended in 2013, because Deutsche Bank wanted to showcase its own collection, and the space reopened as Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. The bank’s collection had grown to nearly 60,000 artworks by the mid-2010s, when it also began sponsoring Art Basel Hong Kong (from 2009 to 2013), in addition to Frieze.
In 2013, the KunstHalle staged an open call and Berlin-based Hito Steyerl recalled seeing a line of artists with canvases or portfolios in hand winding down the street, at a time when the German economy was still reeling from recession. “This is what I mean,” said Steyerl at the time: “debt and unemployment create great business opportunities. All these artists queuing up for hours in order to work for free on the faint and improbable hope of being ‘discovered’ within a bizarre Deutsche Bank salon hanging.”
The Deutsche Bank KunstHalle closed in April 2018, and in June of the same year, the bank inaugurated another gallery, the PalaisPopulaire, in the former Prinzessinnenpalais, a neoclassical building in Berlin’s historic core that once housed Prussian royalty. While Deutsche Bank’s ties to Russian money laundering and to Donald Trump, had already been extensively reported, no articles in the Art Newspaper, Artnet, and Architectural Digest mentioned these facts in praising the PalaisPopulaire.
The PalaisPopulaire summer 2019 exhibition, called Summer of Love, featured works on paper that referenced hippie culture and mid-1960s activism. A long article about the exhibition in Deutsche Bank’s ArtMag wondered whether “protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, for example,” made it apparent that the “question of saving the earth is still associated with spirituality and community today.” Perhaps if “it were possible to combine this [1960s idea of] utopia with a more consistent political perspective, the hippies’ thinking could be trendsetting,” continued the article, acknowledging the current need for social reforms in a weirdly lukewarm way, and neglecting to note that Deutsche Bank worked with companies that had funded the Dakota Access Pipeline. (In response to allegations that the bank itself funded the pipeline, its press office issued a statement explaining that, “[l]ike many other banks, financial services companies and suppliers of the oil and gas industry, we maintain business relationships with many companies involved in this project,” but to “conclude, based on this, Deutsche Bank is financing the Dakota Access Pipeline is not correct.”)
Summer of Love opened during the summer of layoffs for international Deutsche Bank employees, and a blogger who visited the show on a press trip wrote about passing protesters on the way in. “We are no millionaires!” one sign apparently read. The blogger felt some concern for the protesters yet went home to write that “marketing budget and labour costs are entirely different things, and being art heads, we certainly won’t complain about PalaisPopulaire and its activities!” Upon reading this, Deutsche Bank’s PR reps must have been quite pleased.
Deutsche Bank is not the only Frieze sponsor that has been scrambling to recover from controversy. For instance, Endeavor, the Hollywood talent agency involved with Frieze since 2016, had to pull out of a $400 million deal with Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Deutsche Bank’s problems appear to coincide with a surprising number of the financial scandals of our time, including those involving the current US president.
From 1998 to 2015, Deutsche Bank had lent money to both Donald Trump and the to-be president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, after other banks refused to do so. This had not gone well for the bank, as Kushner defaulted part of his debt after buying a former New York Times building and Trump stopped paying interest on bonds issued by one Deutsche Bank before receiving, from another department of the bank, loans for a 92-story Chicago skyscraper (unable to pay this back, Trump sued the bank in 2008, asking courts to void the loan because Deutsche Bank had played a role in the financial crisis that was making it difficult for Trump to rent and sell apartments).
“The cumulative effect of those decisions [to loan to Trump],” writes David Enrich in his forthcoming book Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction, “is that a German company […] played a large role in positioning a strapped businessman to become president of the United States.” In 2016, the year of Donald Trump’s election, regulators began to follow evidence pointing to money laundering that Deutsche Bank was facilitating in Russia. Around the same time, a Florida regulator tagged a transaction between Jared Kushner and a Russian individual as potential money-laundering. Already, Deutsche Bank was facing 7,800 legal disputes, including one with the US Department of Justice over its roll in selling toxic mortgages during the Great Recession (in 2017, the bank agreed to a $7.2 billion settlement). Among other glaring missteps, the bank also traded currency for Jeffrey Epstein up until a few months before his 2019 arrest for sex trafficking, ignoring compliance regulators who raised concerns.
Up until last year, Deutsche Bank seemed to be weathering all this better than expected, and its involvement in art remained uninterrupted and relatively unquestioned. But in July 2019, Gerhard Richter’s 1981 triptych, “Abstraktes Bild (Faust)” (1981) disappeared from the lobby of the bank’s Wall Street tower. At the time, a spokesperson said that there were no plans to sell any art. But the Richter sold in December, after the bank received “an attractive offer from a serious collector,” according to Friedhelm Hütte, head of the bank’s international art program. A Deutsche Bank spokesperson explained to Hyperallergic that the New York branch was moving and “there will be no way to exhibit this work in the bank’s new building.”
The bank also recently sold works by Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, Emil Nolde, and Ernst Wilhelm Nay. According to the spokesperson, these sales occurred because “[t]he bank traditionally sees its art holdings as a ‘breathing collection.’ It will therefore continue to sell artworks in individual cases if they do not fit into the collection’s focus on ‘drawing and photography.’” She also said Deutsche Bank’s commitment to Frieze remains strong, and that “Deutsche Bank is sticking to its art collection and will continue to promote and collect contemporary art, albeit to a lesser extent than before.”
Frieze offered no official comment to Hyperallergic on its partnership with Deutsche Bank.
When Frieze Los Angeles opens this week, the wealth management VIP lounge will be situated in the Paramount Theater, just on the edge of the Paramount Studios backlot built to resemble New York, equipped with a full bar and financial advisors. The bank will offer, for the first time, fellowships and one $10,000 prize for young aspiring filmmakers. And within the bubble of the art world, away from the scandals in which it is mired, it will remind clients just how cultured, tasteful, and philanthropic it has always been.