The man who tends the Bank of America treasures

By Mark Washburn |  Sep 14, 2015

The Charlotte Observer

Hugh McColl often says Bank of America never set out to build an art collection. “We just collected banks,” the former CEO likes to quip.

But through its many mergers and acquisitions under McColl, the bank has amassed one of the largest corporate collections of art and other treasures associated with such names as Andy Warhol and John Hancock.

Yes, that John Hancock, the one with the artistic signature.

Allen Blevins, a scholarly and mild-mannered bank executive you’d never expect to have a Tut’s tomb adventure, oversees Bank of America’s cache of valuables. When the bank acquires another, the accountants go to the books; Blevins heads to the basement, prospecting for relics.
After Bank of America took over FleetBoston Financial in2004, Blevins arrived to assess the historical artifacts, which dated to 1784 through Fleet’s predecessor banks.

In the catacombs were muskets from the battle of Bunker Hill and letters from John and Abigail Adams. Someone mentioned they thought there were old books locked in one of the old cash vaults.

“It hadn’t been opened in 20 years,” says Blevins.

When the door creaked open, Blevins found in protective containers account books back to the 1700s. His eyes fell on a page that contained the handwritten bank account of John Hancock, then Massachusetts governor, in April 1800.

Other notables in the ledgers: Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and Henry Knox.

“I felt,” says Blevins, “like Indiana Jones.”

Oversees treasures

Blevins, 58, joined Bank of America in 1988 and holds the title of director of global art and heritage programs.

A prime responsibility is managing the bank’s vast art collection, called one of the largest and finest in the world. Its size and value has never been disclosed by Bank of America. It is believed that there are thousands of works collectively worth millions of dollars.

It is strongest in post-World War II American art and includes works by noted artists Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell, Thomas Struth and William Eggleston.

Much of it came through acquisitions of banks with strong art collections such as Security Pacific National Bank in Los Angeles, Boatmen’s Bancshares in St. Louis and FleetBoston. Like the legacy NCNB, many banks sought art to be good community partners and support public art and regional artists.

McColl and his successor Ken Lewis often said building the arts – and sports – in Charlotte was key to creating a city that could attract national talent.

Brian Moynihan, Bank of America CEO, said this month at a Charlotte ceremony honoring McColl that the arts are crucial to communities.

“As I travel the world ... it’s clear you do realize that cities are created by their arts community,” Moynihan said, “because they give a fabric to the city, which bounces off its business community, off its political community, off its charitable community. It’s been remarkable watching this city continue to grow.”

McColl, 80, continues his philanthropy through the Thrive Fund, which he launched two years ago to support the symphony and arts in Charlotte.

Serves Charlotte

In Charlotte, the bank’s art collection gets a workout.

At the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, “The Art Books of Henri Matisse” exhibition closed Monday after a six-month run. The exhibition comprised 80 works on loan from the bank’s collection. Bank of America is also loaning the Bechtler two works for its upcoming exhibition of American abstract expressionist Sam Francis, which opens Friday.

John Boyer, president of the Bechtler, says Bank of America is known globally for its arts philanthropy, which is traceable to the stewardship of McColl.
“There are times when you feel like all roads lead to Hugh,” says Boyer. “I think that perception is there for a reason.”

When Bank of America loans art to museums, it also picks up the tab for expensive details such as packing, insuring and shipping the works.

Hewitt Collection

In 1998, Bank of America acquired the Hewitt Collection, about 60 works by noted 20th-century African-American artists including Henry Ossawa Tanner, Elizabeth Catlett and Charlotte native Romare Bearden.

Bank of America gave it to the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture when the center opened in 2009 at the Levine Center for the Arts on South Tryon Street. Since then, the Gantt has acquired 20 more works from Vivian Hewitt, says Gantt registrar Caroline Manning.

Bank of America has also underwritten the current Gantt exhibit “I’m Walkin’ For My Freedom: The Selma March and Voting Rights” by photojournalist Matt Herron

Broader impact

Across the street, the Mint Museum Uptown opened in 2010 with a showcase exhibition with more than 60 works selected from the bank’s collection.

“New Visions: Contemporary Masterworks from the Bank of America Collection,” included paintings, sculptures, works on paper and photographs from such artists as Frank Stella, Janet Fish, Sam Gilliam, Robert Rauschenberg and Deborah Butterfield.

In 2013, Bank of America donated to the Mint the 1979 untitled painting by the late California artist Sam Francis for the opening exhibition. At 19 feet tall and 38 feet wide, it commands attention in Mint’s five-story atrium, one of the few gallery spaces in town roomy enough to hang the canvas.

Commissioned for a private collection and never assessed for its value on the art market, it is considered among the most significant works to enter the Mint’s collection. It came to Bank of America in 1983 when it acquired Seafirst Corp., a Seattle bank holding company with a corporate collection.

Other gifts from the bank’s collection to the Mint include six works by Romare Bearden, a painting by regional artist Tarleton Blackwell and the well-known public art piece Il Grande Disco at Trade and Tryon streets.

Free art days

Because it is a business, the bank must always ask the best way to leverage its fine art collection, Blevins says. Occasionally, works are sold and the proceeds are donated to charity as part of the bank’s philanthropic and social responsibility programs, which he oversees.

“We look at it holistically and see what’s best,” says Blevins. “Our support of the arts reflects our belief that the arts matter as they’re a powerful tool to help local economies thrive.” Beyond museums, other uses of the collection include lending or donating art to nursing homes, hospitals and schools.

When it took over Boatmen’s Bancshares in St. Louis in 1997, for example, the bank got three works by 19th-century painter George Caleb Bingham, known for works such as “Furtraders Descending the Missouri.” In 2001, Bank of America announced the donation of the works, valued at a total of $45 million, to the St. Louis Art Museum.

Some companies such as Sara Lee Corp., IBM, Time Warner and Alcoa have dissolved their collections in recent years.

Shareholders have occasionally called upon Bank of America to do the same and at one point the bank considered it. Instead, the company decided to keep the collection and use it to support communities where it does business and to add some sheen to its name.

Tony Plath, a finance professor at UNC Charlotte, says 50 years ago it was not uncommon for banks to have collections of art, antiques and even coins. “I haven’t seen that nearly as much any more,” he says.

Microsoft started an art collection in 1987 and it has grown to nearly 5,000 works. Deutsche Bank has the largest corporate art collection in the world with 57,000 objects, according to Forbes magazine, which lists the Bank of America’s collection among the world’s best.

Bank of America is not looking to acquire any more art, says Blevins. “We have enough.”

Blevins, who got his bachelor of arts from Wake Forest University and an MBA from UNC Wilmington, says that making loans from its art collection has intangible value to the bank – it creates goodwill and supports museums.

Historic role

As keeper of the bank’s historical trove, Blevins also oversees the bank’s small museum in Founder’s Hall on North Tryon Street.

On exhibit there are curious objects dating to the July 5, 1784, charter of the Massachusetts Bank.

There are letters from notables including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney, who financed “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and construction of Disneyland through Bank of America. You can see a 1799 silver dollar and a $500 bill.

One strange artifact there is an orange chunk of braided steel cable woven for the Golden Gate Bridge. Bank of America was one of the first investors in the Depression-era project, buying $6 million in bonds in 1929.

Among the items in the bank’s archives is a letter written by Thomas Jefferson on Nov. 27, 1803, shortly after he authorized a $15 million payment to the French for the Louisiana territory.

Jefferson was known for mismanaging his private financial affairs. He wrote to the Bank of Metropolis in Washington, a Bank of America forerunner, pleading for more time to repay a $558.14 loan. “I find I shall be hard pressed during the next month,” he wrote.

Also on display in the museum is that old ledger opened to John Hancock’s account. You may be interested to know that in 1800 he had $8,704.95 in the bank, quite a tidy sum for the time.

Even more amazing: he was paying no bank fees.


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