Community banks are the engines driving small businesses of all kinds. One type of small business that’s receiving more recognition in recent years is the creative sector, which includes some 4% of all U.S. businesses and employs roughly 3.5 million Americans. Beyond the numbers, creatives have the ability to bring communities together—something they share with community banks.

Investing in the arts may not always seem like the most obvious choice for some community banks, however. When Merchants and Planters Bank decided to help sponsor a local arts festival 12 years ago, the idea was met with some skepticism.

“When people think about a very small town in rural Arkansas that’s farming-dominated, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t an arts festival,” says Tara Salinas, vice president of marketing at the $300 million-asset community bank in Newport, Ark. “There were a lot of naysayers, but the bank felt it was a valid vision and it would offer enrichment to the community.”

Merchants and Planters Bank team
Merchants and Planters Bank commissioned painter Matt Coburn to create U.S. and Arkansas flag paintings for each of the community bank’s 12 branches.

It was, she says, one of those if-you-build-it-they-will-come ideas that really paid off. “We have had huge participation at both the artist level and the community level. There are so many organizations that sponsor it and individuals who volunteer their time,” Salinas adds.

In its first year, the Delta Arts Festival exhibited works by 17 visual artists. When it takes place on the first weekend of June this year, there will be more than 200 participating artists, filmmakers, musicians and authors. It costs nothing for either exhibitors or guests to attend, and it has brought a surge in tourism, which has given the local economy a boost.

The festival has increased awareness of art in the community, including at Merchants and Planters Bank. “If you go into the president or the board chairman’s office here at the bank,” Salinas says, “you will see paintings and drawings and photographs by local artists that they have purchased either at one of the fundraising auction events or at the art shows.”

We have a lot of talented artists and a lot of great art organizations within the community. So, it was just another way for us to be able to help support them and share their work with the community.”
—Diane Hicks, Community Bank of the Chesapeake

Among them, you’ll see the work of impressionist oil painter Matt Coburn, one of the artists who has been with the festival since its inception. Recognizing both his talent and his generous contributions to the local arts community, Merchants and Planters recently commissioned original works from Coburn depicting the American and Arkansas flags. They will be displayed prominently in each of the bank’s 12 branches.

“They’re gorgeous,” Salinas says, “and they really represent loyalty to country and state.”

Branches are the new galleries

Collaborating with artists can be a very natural fit, and that was the case for $2 billion-asset Community Bank of the Chesapeake headquartered in Waldorf, Md., which partnered with local arts organizations to display art in its branches.

“We have a lot of talented artists and a lot of great art organizations within the community,” says senior vice president and director of marketing and communications Diane Hicks. “So, it was just another way for us to be able to help support them and share their work with the community.”

The community bank has partnered with groups such as the Charles County Arts Alliance, which exhibits shows every quarter in the bank’s home office, and Fredericksburg Center for the Creative Arts, which displays at its downtown Fredericksburg, Va., branch.

Community Bank of the Chesapeake
Community Bank of the Chesapeake partners with local arts groups to exhibit work inside its branches.

“If you’re standing in the lobby, doing some banking, you’re going to see artwork,” Hicks says. “If you’re meeting with someone in an office, you’re going to see artwork. If you’re heading down the hallway to meet with someone else, you’re going to see artwork.”

The branches feature various media, from photography to oil paintings, and even feature pottery and sculpture in their windows to catch the attention of passersby. Most of the works on display are available to purchase, and so far they’ve done brisk business. Before the pandemic, the branches hosted receptions celebrating each new show, inviting artists to talk about their works, which is something they hope to return to soon.

A symbiotic community bank–art relationship

Slate’s team
Slate’s team (left to right): Ginny Van Dine, Shelley Barry, Danielle Fox, Autumn Bailey and Jillian Piccirilli.

Slate, a full-service art consultancy based in Oakland, Calif., banks with Community Bank of the Bay and created its in-branch art program. It’s a symbiotic relationship for which principal partner Shelley Barry is grateful.

“We have been banking with Community Bank of the Bay since around 2014,” she says. “We were working with a very large international corporate bank, and we weren’t feeling supported at all. So, we decided to move our business account over to Community Bank of the Bay. We feel, with them, we really have a partner in helping us build our business, and we can see that they are really invested in helping our community grow. And it’s really a breath of fresh air.”

When it came to choosing the art for the bank’s three branches, Slate chose local artists. The San Mateo, Calif., branch features work by fine art photographer Robert Buelteman, a San Francisco Peninsula native who has photographed the area extensively. In Danville, Calif., the bank chose local landscape photography by Stephen Joseph, including an 84-inch-long panoramic photograph of Mount Diablo, which is visible from the office. The Oakland branch’s theme is contemporary street photography. There’s a large photo montage by artists Peter Tonningsen and Lisa Levine of Counterpoint Studio featuring thought-provoking double exposures of the city’s landscapes.

Barry describes her work as “developing beautiful, intriguing, engaging” art programs tailored to reflect the goals of her clients.

“In the case of Community Bank of the Bay,” she says, “they wanted the art to reflect the local community where their branches were located and support local artists as a way of giving back to the community.”

Empowering local creators

Some community banks make art part of their brand. Since it was founded in 2018, $434 million-asset Studio Bank in Nashville, Tenn., has been making waves for its welcoming and arty persona themed around “creators.” With its playful French bulldog mascot and art-filled website, it cuts a dashing figure in the banking world.

“When you think about human beings … what makes us uniquely human is the capacity to create something from nothing. And so, our role as bankers is, we say, to empower creators with resources,” says cofounder and chief experience officer April Britt.

Studio Bank
Studio Bank in Nashville, Tenn.

Nashville isn’t called Music City for nothing. The world’s country music capital is a famously creative hub, and Studio Bank wanted to create a space that matched that spirit. “When you walk in, there’s great music playing [and] there are big murals on the walls,” she says. “There’s someone greeting you right off the bat. When we say that we’re a different kind of bank, when people walk in the door, they almost immediately get it.”

It’s just natural, if you’re in an [environment like we are] that you would be very much involved in the things that make that community special—the diversity, the arts and entertainment, the food, the creatives.
—Bill Keller, Community Bank of the Bay

The artwork was curated under the guidance of curator Ashley Bergeron, who worked with the Studio Bank team as they set up the bank, cementing their vision and connecting them with local artists. The end result is a diverse selection of canvases, plus a trio of vibrant murals (see “The art inside” below).

Studio Bank is studio in both name and spirit. “Sometimes the banking industry can give an intimidating or a cold sort of feel to some folks,” Britt says. “We wanted to create an environment that would break down those walls and create a space where people felt comfortable and feel like they could be creative or bring out that side of themselves.”

The business of art

Community banks engaging in art understand its power to connect the stories of people and places. Bill Keller, president and CEO of Community Bank of the Bay in Oakland, Calif., knows that the arts are a large part of what makes his community special.

“It’s just natural, if you’re in an [environment like we are],” he says, “especially one as artistically energetic as Oakland, that you would be very much involved in the things that make that community special—the diversity, the arts and entertainment, the food, the creatives.”

The $634 million-asset community bank is immersed in the art world, counting among its clients a multiple Grammy Award winner, an Academy Award winner and an Emmy Award winner, and the walls of its branches are adorned with works by local artists. It also serves as the local banking partner for Oakland Art Murmur, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase the visibility of city’s visual arts.

Community Bank of the Bay
Community Bank of the Bay
Community Bank of the Bay invests in work by local artists, including (top) Stephen Joseph, a photographer who captures the San Francisco Bay and Mount Diablo areas, and (above) Stephen Donwerth, a Berkeley, Calif.-based visual artist and painter.

In addition to fostering art within the community, Keller says the bank takes artists seriously as business people. In 2020, he noticed that the first recipients of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans were “people who had their accountant on speed dial. That’s not artists,” he says. “But their art is their business, and it deserves the same relationship that a more traditional business has with its bank.”

So, for the second round of PPP loans, Community Bank of the Bay reached out to the art community.

“We put together a series of videos on what kind of documents you need to gather [and] who is eligible and distributed that out through the artistic community in the Oakland area,” he says. “And we’ve been very, very happy with the response.”

Shelley Barry of Slate Art Consulting, a customer who was also responsible for curating the community bank’s branch art, agrees.

“If we’re going to continue to have a thriving art scene and a strong cultural community, … one that enriches and lifts up our entire community, it’s really crucial to have the support of our local financial institutions,” Barry says. “Banks have to walk the talk and be able to go out on a limb [and] be intentional in their investments and lending practices toward the creative community. It’s so important for a community to thrive.”

The art inside Studio Bank

Ashley Bergeron
Ashley Bergeron

Roughly three years ago, Nashville, Tenn.-based photographer and curator Ashley Bergeron was asked to choose the art for newly formed Studio Bank. She, too, was in the throes of launching her own business, Studio 208. “[The Studio Bank team] really took a huge leap of faith in me and our local creative community to fill their space with beauty,” she says.

But fill it they did, starting with three large interior murals. The first was a community painting overseen by artists and sisters Jade and Saphire Carter, who created an outline of the bank’s French bulldog logo, which the team members filled paint-by-numbers style.

For the other two murals, artist Beth Inglish interviewed the team and created an abstract image across a wall depicting their stories, complete with bridges and road bumps. Street artist Tess Davies spray-painted the conference room for a work inspired by the structure of cells and featuring drips of paint.

“It’s funny,” Bergeron says, “because some of the more analytical minds, they always laugh whenever they have a board group meeting. They always put their backs to the mural because their analytical minds want to straighten out all the drips.”

To fill Studio Bank’s offices, Bergeron brought in her entire inventory and asked the team to pick their top three favorite pieces each, then matched a piece to each office. “It was a really neat process, because everybody has such different opinions of what they love about art, but we brought in such diverse pieces that they were all really able to be happy,” she says.

The past few months have been challenging for Bergeron, whose downtown Nashville studio was severely damaged in the Dec. 25, 2020, car bombing, but she credits her work with Studio Bank with building her confidence.

“Yes, I run a company,” she says, “but I’m just a sensitive human soul that really, really wants to do wonderful things in the world. And I’ve always had this big vision, and I can see the other side of all my dreams. I just don’t necessarily know how to get there. And [Studio Bank] gave me a stepping stone.”