Watson Powell, Jr.
Recognized nationally for his dedication to the insurance industry and his altruistic accomplishments, Watson Powell, Jr. served as chairman, CEO and president of American Republic Insurance Company. His career with American Republic spanned more than 50 years and included founding American Republic Assurance Company in 1968, American Republic Life Insurance Company of New York in 1971, and American Benefit Life Insurance Company in 1987. He is credited with pioneering direct marketed term life insurance, having introduced American Republic’s unique “Americare 39” policy in 1971.
Watson Powell, Jr. began collecting contemporary art for the company in the 1960s. One example is “The American Man” by Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1887) commissioned in 1964. Warhol’s painting is a serial portrait of Watson Powell, Sr. In addition to about 400 works of art collected for the company, an art park was created for employees, and enjoyed by the public, in a green space just east of the mid-20th century landmark building.
Powell served as the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce president, as a trustee for Drake University and the Des Moines Art Center, and as chairman of the Insurance Economics Society of the United States and the National Alliance of Businessmen. From providing funds to rebuild inner-city basketball courts and support fledgling minority businesses, to launching the generous Americare Scholarship and Internship Program, Watson Powell, Jr. demonstrated a deep concern for human rights and an extraordinary commitment to making Des Moines a better place to live.
The Des Moines Register reported:
“Even from the earliest planning meetings, Powell Jr. knew he wanted artwork to liven up the clean modern lines of architect Gordon Bunshaft’s mid-20th- century design.
The art collection was originally not a question of choice. It was a matter of necessity,” Powell Jr. said in that 1999 interview.
He hadn’t known much about art before the project, but he gave himself six months to learn. He recruited help from his wife, Louise, and company vice president Robert Harper, as well as several art experts.
“We could not expect our folks to look at and be surrounded by white walls and bare concrete,” he said. “There would have to be something warm in the areas to make them come alive.”
The result, even 50 years later, is swanky enough for “Mad Men.” Eye-popping works by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenberg fill reception areas and conference rooms alongside Norman Foster’s steel-and-glass Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona chairs. Massive desks in the executive suite have hidden buttons that activate the office’s sliding doors. (1)
(1) Morain, Michael. American Enterprise unwraps art collection. The Des Moines Register, August 5, 2015.