In the windy, desolate public plaza surrounding Buffalo's tallest building is an imposing minimalist art piece called (quite fittingly) "Vroom, Shhh." It's a reminder of America's mid-century corporate tastes - modernism that often translated better into museum pieces than cityscapes.
For most Buffalonians, that sculpture is the final artistic remains of Marine Midland Bank, a local institution founded in 1850 that grew to become a national brand with billions in assets. But now that HSBC, which acquired the company in 1980, has moved out of the skyline-dominating tower that once bore its name, a vast collection of art has unexpectedly fallen into the hands of local collectors and non-profits.
Dozens of pieces have been donated by the bank to a local cancer research institute and a handful of non-profits. But the majority, hundreds of art works, can be found at Dana Tillou Fine Arts, an ornate 19th-century brick house that has sold mostly antique art for decades.
The roots of the collection (mostly assembled between 1920 and 1980) can be traced back to the bank's days under Seymour Knox II, an art aficionado who almost single-handedly turned the city's art museum into a critical modern art institution. He donated more than 160 works there, including pieces by Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol (whose portrait of Knox can be found there as well). In his honor, the Albright Art Gallery changed its name to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1962.
Knox's love for contemporary art was also reflected in the halls of Marine Midland Center (a 40-floor late modernist tower built in 1972) and its branches around upstate New York. Works by Richard Anuszkiewicz, Ellsworth Kelly, Hugo Scheiber and Alfred Jensen, once only visible to bank employees, now fill Tillou's small gallery from floor to ceiling. Everything can be purchased; pieces by Sol LeWitt and Victor Vasarely have already sold.
Though its former office tower is almost entirely empty, HSBC hasn't abandoned Buffalo altogether. The bank has consolidated its local workforce into a small, glass structure down the street and an even smaller brick building in the suburbs; a devolution that puts the international banking giant's Buffalo presence on par with other back-office operations of out-of-town companies.
The art collection, slowly spreading to homes and offices around the city, feels like a bittersweet glimpse of a version of Buffalo that hardly exists today. And it's a reminder that, one time, a corporate titan thought his workers, from teller to accountant, should experience international, modern art every day at the office on the chairman's dime.