Amid the thunderous crash of America's biggest-ever bank collapse, at least one Continental Illinois Bank official here has retained a calm sense of proportion and place.
Albert K. Pounian, curator of the bank's $3 million art collection, guides a visitor through the stricken institution's Loop headquarters, recognizing hundreds of revered -- and valuable -- friends at a glance.
"There's a Mark Toby . . . here's a Laddy John Dill . . . there's a fine Henry Moore print!" says Pounian, effortlessly ticking off the artists. "I think they go especially well here." Works by these and dozens of other American and European artists hang in the bank's corridors and public and private working areas, part of a trove of 6,000 artworks Continental owns.
Whatever the turmoil -- and there is plenty -- in Continental's worldwide network of offices, Pounian's domain is likely to remain intact. So long as there are customers and employes, it seems, the bank needs good art to help everybody feel better about what a bank is supposed to do best: lend money wisely and well.
Like hundreds of other American corporations, Continental began serious art collecting in the last decade. By the end of the 1970s, it had acquired several thousand pieces and needed professional help to keep track of what it had, get rid of the bad and find the best of what else might be available for purchase.
Pounian, head of the art department at Barat College in nearby Lake Forest, Ill., and an artist in his own right, was hired. By the end of 1982, the collection had expanded to 6,000 pieces.
"Almost nothing of museum quality," Pounian said. "But a very eclectic collection of master prints from Europe and America, limited-edition graphics, photographs by the best artists, 19th-century folk art -- ship models, weather vanes, quilts. We try to relate those things to the function of a given area."
For example, "when we were big in Latin America," the bank bought contemporary South American art and used it to decorate important public spaces for its booming business there. But with Continental now in a program of massive retrenchment because of its financial failures, the Latin collection soon will have no place to hang south of the border. "We'll bring it back," Pounian said with certainty, and find other places for the works.
Bob Champion, Continental's senior vice president for corporate services who oversees Pounian, calls it "basically a functional collection, not at all like those at the Chase or First Chicago." The Chase Manhattan Bank's fine arts acquisitions program, reflecting the elevated tastes of David Rockefeller, is one of the pacesetters for the nation, and includes a number of extremely valuable works.
"We tried to approach art buying in a prudent, businesslike manner," Champion said. "We have an average unit price of about $500 per piece, and that works out to 60 cents a square foot for the entire organization, which itself spends $77 million housing our corporation worldwide. So the investment value is not real material." Champion and Pounian also organize seminars for employes to explain what it is they are looking at.
For example, when the bank opened a new facility in Toronto, the office staff was treated to an hour lecture about and tour of the group of Canadian Indian primitives decorating the spaces. "It helped them feelit's theirs," Champion said. "We work with the people in the area, ask them how we can help them. These arecollaborative efforts, and, in a sense, they are captive clients, so we probably have to work even harder at this."
In all, America's major businesses spent about $1.3 million buying artwork in 1982, says the New York-based Business Committee for the Arts, an industry support organization. That was a decline from 1981's pace, when more than $3 million worth of paintings, sculpture, photographs, prints and handicrafts went into corporate vaults and onto business walls. The decrease reflected the economic hard times in the United States, and was duplicated at Continental, which ceased buying any art last year because of its financial problems. Only a complex $4.5 billion federal aid package arranged last month saved the bank from likely bankruptcy. It was the biggest government rescue of a bank in U.S. annals.
"We're obviously in a period of consolidation," Champion said. "As space becomes vacant, we'll inventory the art and reallocate it." Unexpectedly, the shrinkage is something of a boon to Pounian. He had had dozens of requests from executives for art that he could not fill because of the bank's rapid expansion in the 1970s. Now, he can look forward to brightening the offices of anyone who survives the cuts that are coming.