In the latest edition of the ‘Nick Brett in conversation with…’ series, Nick speaks to Olaf Brock about Hannover Re’s unique art collection.

Hannover Re, fellow member of the Talanx group and joint owner of HDI Global Specialty, has developed its art collection and some imaginative initiatives alongside it to make art accessible to staff, support fine art students at their local university, and to make world class art available to the Sprengel Museum Hannover. The collection contains works by Botero, Calder, Judd, and Le Corbusier as well as a host of German contemporary artists including Baselitz, Polke, Richter, and Uhlig.

 

In the conversation below, Olaf looks at the corporate collection on display in Hannover Re’s offices, explains the Hannover Re Foundation’s role at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, and considers their collaboration with the Braunschweig University of Art. He also shares some of his own personal artistic insights and anecdotes.

NB: Olaf, am I correct in thinking there are several different parts to the collection?
OB: That’s right. There are three elements of our art activities: the Hannover Re Foundation art collection, the Hannover Re Art Collection, and the collaboration with the University of Braunschweig.

The basis for the Foundation is that we buy pieces which we then dedicate to the Sprengel Museum Hannover. It is local to us in Hannover, but holds one of the most significant collections of modern art in Germany. The Foundation was set up in 1991, to mark our 25th anniversary.

We also have the Corporate collection on display at our Hannover Re premises, which we began to assemble in the mid-1980s. And then we have our partnership with Braunschweig University of Art, where we have an annual rotating ‘Masterclass’ exhibition profiling the work of students.

NB: Have any of your proteges from Braunschweig University gone on to achieve international success?
OB: Not yet, as they are still early in their careers. After our sponsorship, we see many more activities from them – they get other art scholarships, they exhibit nationwide as well as worldwide. It is hard to become a famous artist, but they are all going their way and they are extremely creative and engaged.

NB: How many years has the initiative with Braunschweig University been in place?
OB: 2021 is our eighth year. So, we are now keeping our eyes open for some of the students from the earlier years!

NB: What do you look for in terms of objects you might consider acquiring for the Foundation or the Corporate collection?
OB: That’s a good question. It’s very much a mixture of items that have personal significance, that we feel will have significance to our employees and significance to the stature and standing of Hannover Re.

I see it as a ‘living collection’, for the benefit of employees and clients in the Hannover Re building, and the local community in Hannover via the Sprengel Museum.

How we choose what is collected is based on several informed people’s opinions and desires, and naturally there is a strong German influence on the collection. The board has active discussions around what we personally like and what we believe will meet employees’ expectations, all the time also following new art developments to complete the collection of the Sprengel Museum. For the Hannover Re art collection, we have installed a curatorship committee which is responsible for acquisitions.

NB: The period of the corporate collection in the office mirrors the age of the Hannover Re organisation, which I interpret as focusing very much on the present and future?
OB: Precisely – our focus is on the ‘young ones’. When it comes to our own corporate collection, we have a certain amount we can spend which determines the area we concentrate on. We want to see interesting developments with the budget we have – so we start with new and upcoming artists where we can see potential.

NB: I’m really interested in your thoughts on contemporary art. In your fortunate position of being able to tour Europe with art advisors and meeting artists themselves, how much easier do you find it having help interpreting works - and how radically different does your perception of the art end up being after such interpretation?
OB: If you’d have asked me before I took over the function of being in charge of the collection, I would have answered this differently. Previously, I would have said “What could anyone tell me that I can’t already see myself when I look at a work?” Now, in this new role, I will answer this completely differently. Without the educated explanation, I wouldn’t have such a detailed understanding what a painting or sculpture is all about. I now always ask for our curators to join us at exhibitions, to help understand from a technical perspective the idea and meaning behind the art and the exhibition itself. There is so much creativity behind the individual paintings or sculptures which you cannot fully understand or appreciate without an explanation.

NB: Do you think there is an analogy that can be drawn between the interpretation of complex, non-representational art and complex risk and risk management?
OB: There’s an interesting link between the process of understanding a piece of art and a client’s complex risk; your first impression as to whether you like either is not necessarily the right one. Art and complex risks run deeper than that, they need a second and third look before making an informed decision.

NB: Do you have favourite work or works, either at the Foundation or currently on display at the office?
OB: Yes, I do. My favourite at the moment is a painting entitled Kopf (Head) by Thomas Scheibitz - a face that is painted in grey, blue, and orange. We have this in one of the rooms in our office that is used for hosting guests. The room is called ‘Herrenhausen’, and this painting fits perfectly into that room alongside the Picasso pieces we also have in there. I love the orange colour as it really stands out against the other moderate colours in the room.

Thomas Scheibitz, Kopf, 2019- Oil, vinyl, pigment on canvas, 80 x 60 cm - Photography © Ludger Paffrath, Artist credits © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

Thomas Scheibitz, Kopf, 2019- Oil, vinyl, pigment on canvas, 80 x 60 cm - Photography © Ludger Paffrath, Artist credits © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

On the topic of the Picassos also in that room – that’s one story I’ll never forget. Back in 1998, we acquired an insurer in New York and discovered a portfolio of Picasso prints in the cellar! We now have 26 Picassos up in room ‘Herrenhausen’; to have those classic works juxtaposed against some more modern pieces is a combination I love.

NB: Incredible! We’ve spoken mainly about pictures so far, but what about sculptures?
OB: I’m particularly proud of a sculpture we set up outside the main entrance of Sprengel Museum. It’s a hurricane sculpture entitled Another Twister (João) which was done by a New York-based artist. It perfectly fits into the scenery in front of the Sprengel Museum and is quite iconic for any tourists to Hannover, who will definitely see and remember it.

NB: And highly appropriate given the business that Hannover Re is in! One thing I’m really impressed about is that employees can borrow works from the masterclass exhibition and the company pays for them to be packed and transported to their house and taken away again. Have you seen that initiative impact employees’ interests in art collecting?

OB: I think this is the most creative idea we’ve ever had! Staff can borrow pieces for 8 weeks to display in their homes and we have had such great feedback.

 

Alice Aycock, Another Twister (João), 2015 - Aluminium, white powder coating, approx. 564 x 495 x 421 cm - Photography © Thomas Bach, Artist credits © Alice Aycock 2021

I actually would say we wouldn’t have come across this had it not been for the pandemic. We were a little late opening our Braunschweig “Masterclass” exhibition this year due to Covid-19, and in asking ourselves how we could replicate the usual opening ceremony, we came up with this idea to ask the students to prepare special works for staff to borrow. We received about 20 paintings in total and set this up on our intranet where employees could sign up for the paintings on a first come first served basis. We had a run on those paintings!

Feedback from staff has been amazing – we’ve received many photos of the paintings in our employees’ homes, with employees even asking to buy them – so yes, I do think this has encouraged more employees to begin collecting art and I hope we keep this momentum with more similar creative ideas!

NB: After the initial 8-week period, can someone else then apply to have the paintings?
OB: Yes definitely, the paintings can be borrowed multiple times by different people, and people can borrow different paintings after their initial 8-week period. We like the idea of it becoming a mini changing exhibition within the home.

NB: How does the Hannover Re collection compare to those of other major corporate institutions?
OB: I compared catalogues from other large industry groups’ collections, and immediately realised it is not possible to compare and copy others. We have to focus on how we can relate our collection to the culture of our company. The collection reflects our view of Hannover Re in the market; whilst we are the third largest reinsurer in the world, we see ourselves as a reinsurer who is ‘somewhat different’ in the way we handle re-insurance business, which is reflected in our collection.

NB: As an employee of the group, I am delighted that there is a real commitment to the arts. It gives us something to enjoy together and discuss.
OB: We particularly see this in the young talent joining our company. The collection is a great additional benefit to the business; it helps employees’ sensibilities beyond doing a good job and earning money. It’s part of our ESG philosophy in terms of our employees, and in terms of what we do for our local area, local art, and academic institutions.