The Corporate Collection of Kemper Insurance Companies

Editor’s Note: We’re doing a massive series on corporate art collections. This collection, however, isn’t really the strongest one to start with, because it’s been, well, it’s gone now. However, it is the beginning of an exploration of corporate collections which includes why they exist, the directions in which they evolve, and why they grow or shrink.

Mali Anderson

Wacaha, Terrence Karpowicz

Kemper Insurance Companies maintained a corporate art collection until 2004. The company heavily supported Midwestern artists, nearly 80% of the collection was created by artists in the Chicago vicinity.

Initiated by James S. Kemper, Jr.,  Chairman of Kemper Insurance at the time, in 1973, the collection was put in the hands of curator Joan E. Robertson, and budgets were established. Under Mr. Kemper’s aegis she established a balance between realism and abstract art in various mediums including paintings, sculpture, works on paper, mixed media, graphics and photography.  Robertson strove to maintain the balance of styles, generate sound financial investments and aesthetically elevate the company buildings with contemporary art.

“The collection enhanced the working environment of the Kemper employees and guests. Many people saw art they had never seen before. It opened new vistas for them. We tried to buy a variety of art to reflect the diverse backgrounds and preferences of the staff,” says Robertson.

I've Got This Job Of Being A Woman, Hollis Sigler

The collection peaked at 688 works and was displayed in Kemper’s four corporate buildings in Long Grove, Ill. Art filled hallways, reception areas, offices and cafeterias with viewing open to the community in the buildings public spaces. Close to 60% of the work was purchased from galleries in Chicago while other pieces were acquired from juried exhibitions, individual artists, as well as buying trips to Los Angeles, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Washington D.C.

Artists interested in contacting a curator of a collection like Kemper’s should remember to “do your homework, find out the direction of the collection before you contact a corporate buyer and find out how they want materials presented. If they buy top of the line abstract and you do realism, don’t waste their time or yours. If they buy photography and you don’t do photography, ditto,” advises Robertson. “Do be humble and please do not market your work as sublimely unique and the best around. The curators have been around and have seen a lot of art.”

Splash, Roger Brown

Kemper and Robertson also used the collection for outreach within the community. When on display there were many opportunities for the public to enjoy the artwork, including 197 tours given and over 30 lectures presented. This educational element combined with the strength of the collection may have piloted private collections as well.

“Many of the employees bought art from the collection when it was dispersed and many were very proud of it. Several employees started their own small collections,” continues Robertson.

The collection was sold in 2004 because Kemper Insurance went out of business and began to sell all disposable assets. During the sell-off the corporate art collection was dispersed.