The University National Bank (Uni-Bank) and the Town Center Gallery in Rockville Mall are finding that a partnership between art and finance can be mutually profitable.
For the past year UniBank has made available to the gallery exhibition space in all 16 of its Maryland branches.
The relationship between UniBank and the gallery began in August 1975, when bank president Neil Jacobs moved into the bank's new Rockville headquarters. From his 19th floor offices Jacobs could look out and see the Washington Monument, the Reston tower and Sugarloaf Mountain.
When he turned from the view at the windows, Jacobs saw a long sweep of bare white walls.
Some days later he walked through the Rockville Mall which adjoins the UniBank building. His eye was caught by a picture in the Town Center Gallery, a representation of the old B & O train depot, which he could see from his office window. He spoke to the artist of the picture, Em Wilkins, about his problem.
As Wilkins recalls the meeting, Jacobs explained that he needed some art work for a rather large wall. Pointing to the 16-by-20-inch watercolor of the depot, Jacobs said that he liked the painting but didn't think it would be big enough. Not knowing that Jacobs was president of UniBank, she suggested he try the painting and let her know if it didn't work.
The painting did prove to be too small, but Jacobs liked the subject so well he commissioned Em Wilkins to paint a larger version and three other watercolors of old Rockville structures for the UniBank offices.
Today the four paintings, together with a map of old Rockville, fill the long wall of the UniBank board room. Each of the buildings represented can be seen in the city below. There is the B & O train depot, built in 1873; St. Mary's Catholic Church, the oldest church in Rockville, built in 1817; the county courthouse, built in 1891; and the Beall-Dawson home, the present headquarters of the Montgomery County Historical Society, built in 1805.
When artist Wilkins raised the possibility of exhibiting members' work in some of the UniBank branches, Jacobs agreed and offered space in all 16 branches.
The wide exposure that the offer provided was too good to pass up, said Wilkins. The gallery organized its 17 members and by mid-September, 1976 artists were putting up paintings in UniBanks as far away as Riverdale and Mt. Airy.
According to Jacobs, exhibiting the paintings ma good sense because they improved the banks' appearance. Women in particular are apt t obe "more appreciative of the surroundings," said Jacobs. He cited an American Banking Association study which estimated that more than 70 per cent of financial transactions in a household are done by women.
Allowing art to be exhibited in UniBanks, he continued, was also a way "to impress on both staff and customers that we are members of the community, that we do have interests other than making profits."
UniBank and the Town Center Gallery have a "hold harmless" agreement that releases the banks from responsibility for loss or damage related to the art works. Bank employees are given a 10 per cent discount on paintings. Approximately 10 per cent of the gallery's total sales has been to bank personnel, said Wilkins.
Gallery president WIlliam Childress said that bank managers have been kind to the artists. "Inevitably, when you walk into the bank, someone says that this is the best show they've had yet," added Childress.
The banks do not handle sales of the paintings. A card is attached to each work giving price information and the gallery number. A meeting in then arranged through the gallery between the buyer and the artist concerned.
The original plan for monthly exhibits has been replaced by a rotation of shows every two month. Rotating every month was too demanding for the artists, said Childress.
"It is very hard work," said artist Virginia Vance. "You have to exercise caution in transporting the paintings. There is the physical lifting and hanging."
Sometimes the logistics of hanging can be a problem because the artists try to use the nails already in place to save wear on the bank walls.
"If there's hook 10 feet high and no stepladder, you have to climb on chairs, counters or tables," added Vance, who is only 5 feet tall.
The gallery maintains a schedule for rotating artists from one branch to another. When the shows are to be changed, each artist is responsible for arranging a convenient time with the manager of the assigned bank.
"We try to find a quiet time," said Vance. "We don't want to interrupt business."
Now entering its sixth year the Town Center Gallery is for the developing artist, "the hobbyist who is getting better and has run out of relatives," said Em Wilkins. "An artist must sell, must keep producing or esle the artist becomes like a stagnant pond."
President Jacobs revealed that UniBank will be opening two new branches in Montgomery County. The one in Rockville at Research Boulevard and Rte. 28 will have a large amount of wall space due to its octagon shape. "It will be very good for the artists," said Jacobs.