Corporate Social Responsibility of Art

A private art auction house attempts public disclosure

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to speak with Toby Usnik, the Chief CSR Officer and International Director of Christie’s fine art auction house, about starting an inaugural corporate social responsibility (CSR) program at the private establishment. While public disclosure of CSR efforts at publicly-owned companies is becoming the norm, it is rare to find private companies footing the reporting bill. Mr. Usnik, along with his colleague Katelyn Norris, plan to launch Christie’s first annual CSR report this year that will be accessible to clients and the public alike.

Christie’s Ethos

Christie’s auction house has been in operation for almost 250 years. Throughout that history, dedicating resources towards convening individuals and organizations within the arts community to philanthropy and volunteerism has been a steady practice. At the heart of that, there has been a passion about art and all that comes with sharing it, including cultural stewardship and arts advocacy. Toby plans to uphold this importance of preserving, protecting, and promoting art in our communities, while at the same time keeping track of its economic and environmental impacts.

Toby also stresses that as art lovers who understand the ability of art to express the more soulful and unexplainable aspects of our lives, there is a preference to conduct business based on relationship building, rather than just transactions. By incorporating further aspects into Christie’s business model that take into account relationships and shared well-being, Mr. Usnik hopes to both enrich and extend the many individuals and organizations connected to Christie’s.

Why CSR Now?

When asked why Toby would want to now start reporting on CSR initiatives, such as tracking the amount of philanthropy funds, charity organizations participating in Christie’s social programs, employee volunteer hours, and environmental impacts of Christie’s operations, Mr. Usnik said there were three reasons.

One, it’s in the air. Usnik participated in numerous dialogues with corporate players like The New York Times Company and American Express, among others, to understand what exactly is going on in the CSR landscape. He found that everybody’s doing it, and those that haven’t yet, are facing laggard status in terms of market competition. Today’s consumers want to know not only that the products they buy are great and well-made, but that the employees who made them are well-treated and the natural materials used were harvested sustainably. Companies that convey these concerns and change their business operations to reflect them are more successful in winning over customers and staying in business.

Two, it’s challenging and Christie’s can be challenged by it. While the auction house has been active within the CSR realm, there have never before been efforts to consistently measure and track such endeavors. By tracking and measuring how many carbon emissions were saved on Christie’s new carbon-neutral art sale, for example, there creates incentive for creating more programs that additionally help reduce environmental footprints and losses on human capital. Additionally, it provides an extra avenue for Christie’s employees to get more involvement not only with their jobs, but with the greater community, and feel good about it.

For example, Toby spoke about two Christie’s employees who volunteered their time and skills to reassemble two portfolios of artwork in order for them to be ready for sale and exhibition. One of the portfolios ended up selling and providing philanthropic funds, while the other one got exposure in one of New York City’s most premier galleries. This was not only immensely helpful to the beneficiaries of the artwork and others, but also to the two Christie’s employees who gained a great feeling of satisfaction from their service. Usnik spoke about how this sets up a “virtuous cycle where employees find outlets for their excess capacity and other people and organizations benefit from their specialized skills.”

And three, Toby sees CSR initiatives as purely something that just has to happen given the current economic, environmental, and social conditions of our time. Considering other factors of business, besides just the financial part, akin to a triple-bottom line or integrated approach, is the only way to keep up with the evolution of human consciousness and our limited planet’s capacity.

The Art Market

Toby sounds optimistic about the future of art, even though this differs from the reality many of my artistic and creative friends face as they struggle to eke out a living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. However, Mr. Usnik does come from a more international perspective, where he states that the art market is growing globally like never before. Additionally, there appears to be a growing global appreciation of art and design, and Christie’s is primed to be part of it.

Christie’s also enjoys a distinct position in its ability to perpetuate arts advocacy by connecting with people with financial means and the desire to do something meaningful with it to make a difference. So far, there have been numerous philanthropic transactions facilitated by Christie’s showroom. For example, a valuable Freud portrait sold for $18 million, which was completely donated to build schools in Afghanistan, and a rare brush pot was sold where all proceeds went to aid victims of Sichuan earthquakes. For more examples of Christie’s philanthropic and CSR work, check out their CSR overview here.

The Future of Art

Christie’s mission is to drive appreciation of the arts through cultural stewardship and arts advocacy to enrich the lives of people across cultures and across continents. There is something very special about a cultural heritage and preserving that for generations to come. Art has had the unique ability to pass along the many questions all communities have asked like, what is life about? Why do things happen? What does it all mean? What is beauty, and why does it exist? Although often not thought of as essential, art is intrinsic to being human and can often catapult thoughts from the mundane to imagining a different world—which is a skill much in demand these days as we figure out how to navigate a planet nearing instability.

Toby and Katelyn’s efforts are based on a feeling that work should be meaningful and life is based on dialogue and building relationships. Toby loves art, but he wants to keep it going in a sustainable way. As he finds meaning in his work by tackling the many social and environmental issues that creep up in corporate work, he asks, What do you stand for?