Discover the Stories Behind American Museums’ Most Treasured Pieces
It’s hard to imagine a time when Rena M. De Sisto, having spent more than two decades bridging the gap between finance and culture, had no concept of what an artist was. “When I was about six years old, I remember drawing with my mother at the kitchen table,” recalls De Sisto, who serves as Bank of America’s Global Executive for Arts & Culture and Women’s Programs. “She said, ‘Let’s draw the bowl of fruit,’ and she jokingly signed her paper with ‘da Vinci.’ I said, ‘What’s da Vinci?’ I didn’t know there was such a thing as an artist.”
Her mother’s explanation, as well as a particularly formative trip to Italy when she was a teenager, were among the key contributors to De Sisto’s lifelong love of art. She has increasingly fostered this passion at Bank of America, whom she proudly calls “the leading corporate supporter of the arts.” The company’s latest initiative launched this year, Masterpiece Moment is a video series that transports viewers to 25 American cultural institutions, while also providing each with a stipend. Here, De Sisto shares the impetus for the project and discusses why Bank of America, a longstanding sponsor of TEFAF New York, believes art is such a vital part of society.
What have been some of Bank of America’s most significant arts and culture initiatives?
Part of the unique way our company is structured is that within the arts and culture space, philanthropy, sponsorship, collection management, and other programming all fall under my responsibilities. With our Art in Our Communities program, we lend and co-curate complete shows from our collection to museums free of charge. We are up to about 150 shows since we started in 2009, and we have waiting lists with museums booking two or three years in advance.
In 2010 we established the Art Conservation Project as a way for Bank of America to bring to scale an art program that could expand around the globe. We just announced the 2021 selections, and now we’ve hit more than nearly 200 projects, which is about 5,000 pieces, from 36 countries. It’s so gratifying to be a part of helping these nonprofit museums and countries protect their treasures.
Every year we sponsor 20 to 30 exhibitions internationally, and we also make grants for education programs, access programs, and capital programs for expansion. Because 2020 was such a tough year for the art world, Bank of America actually increased its support of the arts, and our giving topped $50 million. We also support the performing arts, in addition to visual arts.
Why does Bank of America invest so substantially in the arts? How does the company view the relationship between finance and art?
As a financial institution we have a vested interested in ensuring that the economy is healthy, and we deploy funds to help businesses thrive. We also want communities to thrive, and museums, theaters, and performing arts centers are intrinsic parts of that. We believe art is a powerful tool to educate and enrich societies and peoples’ lives.
What was the impetus for launching Masterpiece Moment, and what do you hope viewers will take away from the series?
As an art lover, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to start your day off with something educational and inspiring as a contrast to all the bad news out there?’ I started thinking about doing something virtually two years ago, then the pandemic came along and made this all the more important. The idea was to go across the country and work with museums to highlight a masterpiece in their collections, and at the same time, to help these institutions. Museums have done a lot of virtual activities both before and during the pandemic, but typically these are just marketing costs to them; there’s no associated revenue. With each video, we are giving the museum a stipend, so essentially there’s no cost to them other than their time.
How important was it to shine a light on a diverse mix of artworks and locales that reflect lesser seen histories of America?
Our arts programs have always been about reflecting different cultures. All of our programs reflect that approach. The Art Conservation Project is a perfect example. We have customers and employees all over the world, and if you want to have a happy employee base and an engaged client base, showing respect for the countries and the cultural traditions that they come from is important. We are very deliberate in terms of the mix; small museums, big museums, they all need help. Each of them is intrinsically important to the community they serve, whether it’s the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, or the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina.
What are a few of your favorite featured artworks in the series?
We kicked off with an incredibly powerful and emotional Mark Bradford from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We’re thrilled to have been able to focus on Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884 at the Art Institute of Chicago because it’s one of those paintings that people know, but they don’t know much about.
I also love the Bodhisattva of Compassion Seated in Royal Ease from the Denver Art Museum. It’s a small, beautiful wooden statue, and I loved learning about the tradition of a bodhisattva. I have to admit to being a Caravaggio admirer, so I loved the one from the Nelson-Atkins, which is one of the few in this country. The story is very fascinating, and it’s a different treatment of the biblical story that we are all familiar with.
Bank of America is the lead sponsor of TEFAF New York.