July 06, 2016

Behind the Scenes with Brian Lang: Curating BNY Mellon’s Art Collection

Brian Lang

Brian Lang with the 12 Stories Gallery in BNY Mellon’s Pittsburgh Innovation Center

Brian Lang has a one-of-a-kind role at BNY Mellon: Curator of the corporate art collection. For 20 years, he has managed the company’s worldwide art holdings, a diverse portfolio of works that he sees as a reflection of the vibrant, creative BNY Mellon organization. Lang works closely with museums and other cultural institutions, consults with business teams including Wealth Management, and develops innovative ways to link BNY Mellon’s rich heritage with a world of constant change. He recently took us behind the scenes.

How did you find yourself working as an art curator at BNY Mellon?

I definitely had a different plan in mind when I went to college. I studied philosophy and intended to go to law school. Art was my passion, and I had studio training from grade school through college, but I didn’t pursue an art degree because I wasn’t sure a career was realistic. Then, in my senior year, I interned with a gallery, and I fell in love with the art world. After college, I worked in various galleries in Pittsburgh.

In 1994, I was hired as a contractor for an art inventory-control project, working with the previous curator at what was then Mellon Bank Corp. I learned the collection inside-out in 10 months. When the curator left two years later, my knowledge of the collection helped me land her job.

How did the corporate art collection develop at BNY Mellon?

Art is intertwined with our history. We have an incredible collection of artifacts that deal with the history of banking in the U.S., stretching back to the founding of The Bank of New York by Alexander Hamilton in 1784. And we have a rich heritage passed down from the Mellon family, who were legendary art collectors. Andrew Mellon was collecting in earnest during his long tenure as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and he formed the National Gallery of Art. His son, Paul Mellon, inherited the collecting gene, and was one of the greatest collectors of British art who ever lived.

Today, we have about 5,000 works of art in four main sub-collections: Artifacts, 19th century American paintings, British drawings and watercolors from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s, and contemporary art. The contemporary collection is the largest, and it’s the only part we’re adding to. Its major genres include printmaking, drawings and photography.

How much of the art is on display? Where can it be seen?

Most of it is displayed—typically, about 98 percent. The collection is democratic, in that it hangs in our work spaces globally, in New York, Pittsburgh, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, among other cities, and in offices in Canada, Asia, and Europe.

There are also always pieces on loan to museums and exhibitions. Since 1980, we have been involved in more than 100 loan exhibitions with public institutions, and there hasn’t been a single day when some work of art from the BNY Mellon collection wasn’t on loan to the public. We lend art to museums or exhibitions at no charge.  

We just opened the 12 Stories Gallery in our Pittsburgh Innovation Center. It will have rotating exhibits year-round, and each exhibit will have 12 artists, 12 pieces, and 12 accompanying stories. We’re currently showcasing contemporary photographers who explore the medium in innovative ways, which is fitting, given BNY Mellon’s commitment to innovation. The gallery is open to Pittsburgh campus employees, and we’ll offer related educational programming.  We are also creating a virtual tour of the space so that we can share the gallery company-wide.

In New York, we’re preparing an exciting gallery space in our headquarters. The artifacts collection, which was housed in our museum at our former headquarters at 1 Wall Street, will get a special home. We’ve built glass cases, or vitrines, into walls to display and protect treasures such as the first loan to the U.S. government and various letters written by Hamilton. These artifacts will tell the story of our corporation’s past, present, and future.  One section will be devoted to Hamilton and his roles in founding The Bank of New York and as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. 

The art collection also plays a role in business development. How does that work?

The art collection has partnered with Wealth Management for decades, and is a vital part of BNY Mellon’s marketing and branding. Supporting museums and other cultural institutions helps us to connect with high net worth clients in direct and personal ways.

What is the purpose of maintaining a corporate art collection?

Our collection reflects our heritage and history, and is an outward symbol of who we are as a company. Take our photograph collection, which includes portraits of people from around the globe. This is a direct and meaningful reflection of the diversity of our employees and clients.

BNY Mellon is very focused on the employee experience, and that includes workspaces. We want employees to have the latest technology and to work in stimulating environments where culture is valued and innovation is fostered.

What do you enjoy about your job?

There are always new challenges. For example, we are in the process of digitizing our entire collection. This will help us share the collection with employees globally and with the public.

I am thankful to work for an organization that values culture and diversity and allows me to express that in a very real and tangible way through the collection. My job is one of the best at BNY Mellon, and one reason is that the “tone at the top” is crystal clear. Corporate collections may come and go at other organizations, but support at BNY Mellon has been unwavering.