Arnold Witte is specialised in institutional aspects of artistic patronage, both in the Early Modern Period and the present day. His research focuses on the way art has been commissioned by patrons and the way this has (had) an impact on the meanings of these works of art. From this perspective, he is working both on patronage in seventeenth-century Italy, especially of ecclesiastical patrons and the functioning of religious art, and on contemporary art and the role this plays in the corporate world through corporate art collections.
Arnold Witte has published widely on Italian art, especially Baroque art in Rome. His particular attention goes to iconography and patronage of Counter Reformation painting, in conjunction with institutional networks of both the Catholic Church and secular authorities. This approach is exemplified in his book on the Palazzetto Farnese (The Artful Hermitage, L'Erma di Bretschneider, Rome 2008, for which he received in 2012 the triannual prize of the Dutch Werkgroep Italiestudies as best publication by a Dutch author on an Italian art historical subject) and the article on Domenichino's decoration at the Cappella dei Santi Fondatori in Grottaferrata, where the motives of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese (1573-1626) to commission art both for his own palace in Rome as well as for other locations were explained not as a result of artistic tastes or preferences, but by means ofFarnese's ecclesiastical position and obligations within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Aninstitutional approach makes clear that manyof theworks of art he commissioned from Annibale Carracci, Domenichino and Lanfranco reflect his attempts to adopt himself to the shifting expectations of the Vatican authorities towards cardinal protectors. As an ongoing project, Witte is working on concerns the church of San Martino ai Monti in Rome, which was decorated by Gaspar Dughet between 1648 and 1651.
This institutional approach to patronage and the meaning of art was also applied by Witte to other fields, in particular to twentieth-century corporate art commissioning and collecting. In his book on the Dutch Post offices and their policy to commission graphic artists and industrial designers (Design is geen vrijblijvende zaak, 2006), he has argued that not the persons shaping this tradition are the key to understand these developments, but their respective positions in the state company itself and in other functions within society. From this perspecive, the closing down of the arts and design department of the PTT in 2002 can be explained as a result of institutional and organizational changes leading to a more professional attitude towards the arts and design. These attitudes opposed and ultimately obstructed the ideologically charged goals and aims of the artistic patronage of the arts & design department.
With respect to the phenomenon of corporate art collecting in present-day Netherlands, the increasing professionalisation with respect to arts and business is also expressed in the varying functions that art collections serve within companies, and in the wider context of the Dutch art world. The recent book of which Witte was co-editor and co-author, Bedrijfscollecties in Nederland / Corporate Art Collections in the Netherlands , (Rotterdam: VBCN/NAi 2010) analyses the ongoing discussions on the Stuyvesant and the ABN-AMRO collections, for example, which precisely reflect the different expectations that several parties in this field have with respect to corporate art collections. At present is he concluding a four-year research project, financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the Netherlands Association of Corporate Art Collections (VBCN) on the impact of corporate collecting on the art market, the cultural consumption of employees, and the canonisation processes leading towards the heritage status of modern and contemporary art.
Thirdly, Witte is conducting research in the field of art historiography, in particular the way the Italian Baroque has been studied in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. A key figure in this context was Alois Riegl, whose seminal lectures on the subject were published after his death in 1908 in Die Entstehung der Barockkunst in Rom (The Origins of the Baroque in Rome). With the translation of this book into English (in cooperation with Andrew Hopkins of the Università dell'Aquila) and introductions on its publication and the history of its academic reception (by Alina Payne, Andrew Hopkins and Arnold Witte), the aim is to understand how Riegl's attempt to throw a new light on this subject is a result of, and in turn exerted influence on, scholars in the Viennese, German and international academic contexts. It also shows how Riegl did not restrict himself methodologically to formalist discussions of works of art, applied but a much broader methodological perspective to this field than in earlier publications. In fact, the term 'Kunstwollen', which is often seen as quintessence of his thinking, played a minor role in this book, indicating that he shifted away from it towards a much more historical approach of seventeenth-century art. This project was published in 2010 by the Getty Research Institute.
Apart from this book, Witte was also guest-editor for the international journal for Italian Studies, Incontri, for a part on the Dutch and Flemish study of Italian Seicento art in the last century, and together with Hopkins he published a translation of and commentary on the 'Kommentar' written by Hans Rose, a pupil of Heinrich Wölfflin, in the latter's 1926 fourth edition of his Renaissance and Baroque book of 1888, which has appeared in the Journal of Art Historiography. He recently also studied the influence of Julius von Schlosser's Italian background on the museological choices he made in the Viennese context.
Arnold Witte is associate professor in Cultural Policy. Between 2008 and 2014 he was coordinator of the MA programme of Dutch Art in European Context, and he was Head of Studies of the department Art, Religion and Cultural Studies of the University of Amsterdam between 2010 and 2014. Apart from that, he has also lectured in the history of art at University College Amsterdam between 2010 and 2012.
Between 2015 and 2020, he was on secondment to the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome (http://www.knir.it), as Director of studies in Art History and Vice Director. Here he set up courses on contemporary art in Italy (on Arte Povera and Umberto Eco's Opera Aperta) and he initiated a BA minor on italian art and history, together with the Dutch Institute of Art HIstory in Florence (NIKI) and departments of art history and history of the Dutch universities.
He is a member of the international advisory board of the journal Explorations in Renaissance Culture, member of the international advisory board of the online Journal of Art Historiography, and between 2010 and 2015 he was member of the Comité de Redaction of Perspective, the historiographic journal of the french Institut National de l'Histoire de l'Art in Paris. Between 2005 and 2015 he was honorary secretary (and former webmaster) of the Dutch Society for Italian Studies (Werkgroep Italiestudies), organising conferences and meetings.
Recently, government policy towards the art has favoured cuts on budgets and subsidies, while expecting a greater involvement from private parties and industry to offset possible damages to the art sector and national cultural heritage. However, the economic downturn has led to cutbacks in the corporate art budgets too. This is a worrying development for the art world, especially because of the risk of a reinforcing feedbackloop between lower investments in the arts and a lower valuation of the importance of the arts for the economy and society.
In the last decades the involvement of industry in the art market has grown and many larger organizations have set up corporate art collections. These corporate collectors have organized themselves in the Association of Corporate Collections in the Netherlands (Vereniging van Bedrijfscollecties Nederland, henceforth VBCN). Against the background of the above-mentioned developments, the threat of further cutbacks to the budgets of the collections themselves, and the current debates on the sale or alienation of corporate collections, the VBCN saw an urgent need for a systematic investigation into the effects of corporate collecting. At present, there is only limited knowledge about the state of corporate collections and no studies of the effects of the collections on the art market, the reputation of the involved corporations or on developments in the wider art world.
Other organizations that are concerned about the dynamics of the art world, such as the Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Boekman Stichting (with which an informal cooperation exists within this project), recognized the same need for an in-depth study of the role of corporate collecting and are willing to share their expertise on their respective fields with the research team, in the context of research meetings and broader (co-organised) symposia.
The consortium set up for this project combines the expertise of two different academic fields in ways that will benefit both the VBCN and the Dutch art market to achieve a fuller and more in-depth understanding of the dynamic processes in which corporate collecting plays a role. The collaboration of the VBCN – and through the VCBN of its individual members, ranging from AMC and Rabobank to AKZONOBEL – will enable the researchers to access, construct and explore a wide range of datasets at the level of the collections and the collecting organizations. The involvement of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed, and the good informal contacts with the Boekman Stichting will greatly benefit the project by allowing not just further access to existing data but also active collaboration in studying developments in the wider art markets and art policy, and the issue of future heritage management.
Precisely in the rapidly changing environment of the – national and international – art world this project sets out to gather knowledge, which will have immediate relevance for decision-making in for profit and not-for-profit organizations, as well as shape effective cultural policy. These decisions, in turn, will determine the extent to which corporate collecting can continue to function as the driving force of emergent Dutch cultural heritage.
Corporate art collections form an important part of the demand for contemporary art, especially new and/or innovative art forms. As such corporate collections play a leading role in the art market. Collectively, corporate collections in the Netherlands and most other countries showcase ‘avant-garde’ art produced by artists with local or national provenance and/or just entering the art market, increasing the chances that these artists are accepted by cultural institutions and the general public, which, in turn, might lead to a process of canonization and recognition of the importance of their work to future generations. Viewed this way, corporate art collections can be seen as emergent national cultural heritage. At the same time, these collections are corporate, belonging to for profit – or not-for-profit –corporations ranging from regional to multinational size. The decision to engage in corporate collecting can affect the reputation of the corporation in the eyes of internal and external stakeholders, and it also affects the cultural consumer behaviour of employees in general and especially of members of the higher management echelons. At an aggregate level corporate collecting – and the emergent cultural heritage it results in – can affect the attitudes of the broader public and national governments towards the artistic field and, more particularly, with regard to the position of the arts in society and the extent to which particular types of art policy are considered desirable.
All the above-mentioned effects of corporate collecting can be studied from the perspective of signalling theory in the sense that the decisions of corporations and their curators can be publicly observed and function as signals to outside observers, who include these signals in the information they base their own decisions on. A particular corporate collection acquiring the work of a particular artist is a signal about this artist. Many corporate collections investing in particular styles, movements, genres or artists are a signal about these styles, movements, genres and artists. A particular organization having a particular corporate collection, and exhibiting it in a particular way, is a signal of what kind of organization this is, to external stakeholders and to employees. Many corporate collections investing in art is a signal of the importance of art to broader society; the art functioning as a signal is more likely to become cultural heritage, the stronger its function as a signal.
The core contribution of this project is to investigate these signalling effects of corporate collecting to stakeholders in the corporate and the arts sectors. How strong are these effects, what determines their strength, and how do different effects interact? The antecedents and consequences of corporate collecting will be considered, as part of the wider dynamics of the art world and also of the competitive dynamics in which corporations that build collections are involved.
The project will focus on a number of research questions. We want to know how corporate collecting functions as a signal of artistic quality, affecting museums, private collectors, and intermediaries, e.g. dealers and art galleries, and how this has an impact on the development of the visual arts and the formation of artistic heritage. Further, the effects of corporate collections making themselves (semi-)public, displaying (parts of) collections to internal and external stakeholders, both physically and digitally, need to be investigated, as these coincide with the signals they send out about corporate reputation to different groups of stakeholders. Apart from the effect of these signals to the art world, the question is how reputations resulting from art collecting might be transferred to other domains. At the same time, we will analyse the interaction between corporate collecting and cultural consumption by members of the involved corporations, amongst general employees but especially at the upper echelon level, and how this ties in with the effect of corporate art collections on public support for the visual arts and its meaning for cultural heritage management with respect to these collections.
The project as a whole builds on theoretical foundations from management science and from humanities disciplines - specifically heritage studies, cultural studies and art history. By simultaneously adopting management science and humanities-based perspectives, this project considers a much broader range of evidence, to triangulate results in innovative ways, and is forced to extend theoretical and conceptual frameworks, leading to further theoretical contributions.