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Interview with Shirley Reiff Howarth, Editor of the International Directory of Corporate Art Collections, prior to the lecture at the Atwater Library and Computer Center in Montreal, Canada.  May 22, 2005.  Interviewer, Bruce Peterson, Coordinator of the ALCC Lecture Series

 

Art in the Workplace......... or Art in a Pinstripe Suit

 

Peterson: Would you sketch for us, please, the history of art in the work environment?

 

Howarth: The use of art in the workplace has a very interesting history.  Business has always used the arts, of course, but that use was never quite so structured or publicized as it is today.   In the earliest companies, art was used to decorate the board rooms in the largest and most traditional companies.  This has been going on for several hundred years.  Even some of the earliest banking houses during the Italian Renaissance were art collectors and patrons.  

 

In the late 19th and early part of the 20th century, art was used quite deliberately for marketing reasons. For example, the railroads such as Union Pacific and the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroads would use art as a publicity medium to encourage travel and to publicize themselves. They would commission artists or provide them with free rail tickets and hotel accommodations so that they would document the American and Canadian West, and the pleasures of rail travel.  I think Benedictine Brandy for a while had competitions and the artists would incorporate bottles of  Benedictine Brandy into their paintings. These companies were using art as part of a marketing plan. It was commercial art. That was the beginning.

 

Then it became image building. In 1939, IBM began to purchase contemporary American art and to sponsor art exhibitions.  The Container Corporation hired Bauhaus artists to design advertisements and public relations activities.  IBM and other corporations used art to reflect their prestige and importance, through their support of the arts.  

 

This type of self-promotion grew during the 60s, and by the 1970s and 1980s, there was an incredible boom in corporate art buying. That’s when corporate collections began to dominate and even influence the art market, because they were buying large quantities of art.  By the late 1980s, it had become such a popular phenomenon that the majority of the Fortune 100 and a large number of the Fortune 500 companies collected and displayed art in their workplaces.  

 

A lot of misguided purchases were taking place, but there were also a lot of wonderful things happening. For example, David Rockefeller decided to incorporate art in Chase Manhattan's new corporate headquarters on Wall Street.  The company's art committee included top New York curators and the avant-garde effort established a precedent for aesthetic tastes for the corporate community. 

 

 

 

After the recession  in the early 90s and the mid-90s,  most art people began began saying that corporate art collecting was dead. That, of course, was nonsense, because it had always been a more broad-based activity that had been apparent on the surface.  There were many  companies that were, and still are, purchasing art for their office spaces. 

 

Art is being used in many different ways, from creating a corporate image, to including art in the workplace to create a pleasant and inspiring environment for employees, for public relations, and for community relations.  With well over 1000 corporate collections around the world,  described in the International Directory, it is still a very important phenomenon in the artworld.  I think today that corporate art buyers are a lot wiser and more knowledgeable about art.

 

Misconceptions about Corporate Art Collecting

Peterson: What are some of the misconceptions or myths that you would like to see addressed in the area of corporate art collections?

 

Howarth:  One attitude towards art in the corporate environment -- and I feel this is more prevalent in North America -- is that art is viewed as a frivolous and unnecessary expense, an “add-on”.    By contrast, in Europe, art is considered to be an important part of life. In fact art IS life. The government supports museums, there are subsidies for artists, and art can be seen virtually everywhere -- it is an accepted part of and necessary for a quality of life.  Even in Canada there are subsidies for artists and a great deal of government support for the arts. But in the States it is viewed as an unnecessary expense, an add-on. 

 

In this way, I feel that corporate art has been a beneficial trend, because it is placing art in the work environment.  People that may never visit museums or art galleries can see original art.   After all, people  spend over forty hours a week in a work environment that is often stressful and uninspiring.  But by looking up and seeing a beautiful work of art, it can help change your focus, and give you a new way of solving a problem. I think art in the workplace is a very strong force in creating a better quality of life in our society.

 

Corporate art is for investment

Another myth is that businesses purchase art  for investment value. Most companies do not buy art as an investment -- there are  other more secure ways to invest if that is the goal.  Now, it is certainly wiser for a company to purchase art that is of high quality, because it can become an asset for the future, but purchasing art solely so that it can be sold later at a profit is not the motivation.  A related concern is that stockholders may complain that the company should be using profits to make more money  for the stockholders -- instead of buying art.  But in reality, art in a workplace environment actually improves productivity.  There have been many  in-depth studies that have demonstrated that employee and corporate efficiency, productivity, and creativity increase when art is placed in the work place.

 

 

Another myth is that corporate art is dead  -- dead in the sense that corporations have stopped collecting. That myth has been promoted by a media that is obsessed with sensationalism -- the emphasis is always on which collections are being sold or dispersed -- never on which companies are acquiring art or for what reasons.  A few years ago Readers Digest sold  their most important paintings – the stars –of their collection because the works were becoming too valuable to leave them unprotected in corporate offices.  They became an insurance and security risk.  All the media said  “Ah, they’ve sold off their collection.” That was just absurd! They still had most of the collection. They still had hundreds of works hanging throughout the corporate facilities!

 

Another huge myth is that corporate art collections are all visual musak, art as wall paper. That’s nonsense!  There IS a lot of terrible art hanging on office walls, but there is also a lot of art in offices that is very good, and some corporate collections rival museum collections   Corporations don’t have to cover their walls with reproductions and “paintings on velvet”.  Good design doesn’t cost any more than bad design!  You can purchase good original works of art for the same cost as reproductions if you acquire wisely.  So many businesses try to cut corners by putting up reproductions, whereas in the long run, they are wasting money, because at least original works of art will provide value for the future and will be giving something back to their communities.  

 

 

 

I think the nature of art is so important, so earth shaking, that it creates a ripple effect in the workplace.  To bring art directly into the corporate environment -- there is no doubt that it will have an impact, whether it’s the intended impact, or not. It can even be somewhat disruptive. A few years ago, one of the banks in the midwest purposely acquired art that was controversial. They had a curator who was very familiar with the educational uses of art.  If there were works of art that upset or irritated people, they would relegate them to a "controversy corridor”.  And people would discuss them and why they disliked them -- it encouraged a dialogue.  The company’s view was that art has a way of affecting people in many ways – it can challenge, it can stimulate creativity, it can encourage problem solving.  This was their method of moving  people out of their ruts.

 

A museum can’t do that -- If people don’t like an artist’s work, they just don’t go into the museum. But if it’s hanging over your desk, or if you have to pass it when you go to the cafeteria, it’s going to move you. It’s going to open your eyes. You may hate it. You may love it, but it’s going to affect you.

 

In the context of commercial art, a company has  to be careful about what it is saying.  But in the corporate environment -- the workplace -- there is much more leeway.  Many corporations today actively understand that art moves you, opens you up, gives you different ways of viewing the world.

 

 

Peterson: Tell us a bit about your Directory.

 

Howarth: I started publishing it over 20 years ago when I realized that there was a growing interest and importance in corporate art collecting. Coming from the cloistered museum world, this came as a revelation to me. I began to realize that there were hundreds of corporations with art collections and there was absolutely no chronicle or reference tool for this world. So in documentary fashion, I started the directory with 300 collections that I was familiar with in North America.  The directory has now grown to include over 1300 around the world.

 

I describe the basics:

  • the contact people for more information,
  • what the company collects,
  • the approximate size,
  • when they began the collection,
  • what the business entity is, and whether it is a corporation, partnership or a foundation,
  • a bibliography, past exhibitions, catalogues.

 

So the Directory has continued for over twenty years now.  Every other year I update it.

 

 

Peterson: What problems have you encountered in the point of view of people when you were researching  your directory?

 

Howarth: One of the problems is that people consider a “collection” to be a group of art works in the same room or a gallery. So when I would telephone a corporation and ask about their art collection, I would sometimes get the answer, “We don’t have an art collection” because they were thinking of a gallery space.    They would say that they had a few artworks hanging on the wall, but that it wasn't a  “collection”.

 

So that word “collection” is a misnomer.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a better term to use.   The company’s  “collection” might not only be displayed throughout   a single building; it might be displayed across the country.  For example, JP Morgan Chase, which has offices and branches around the world, has works of art in all of these locations. They are managed by the curator in New York.  So the definition I use is that the terrm corporate art really means art in a business environment.

 

Peterson: Does your Directory deal with art in smaller businesses as well as the art of “corporations” in the narrower sense?

 

Howarth: Yes, it really deals with art in a business  or work environment --  or even in an unexpected environment. For instance, there are hotels and restaurants and foundations that have art collections. The term “corporate art” is much broader than just “corporation”. For example, some law firms have art collections. They’re not corporations of course; they are  partnerships. The term “corporate art” has become a generic term. The Cartier Foundation is included in the Directory. And the New York-New Jersey Port Authority because they have a very active program of commissioning art for their facilities.   And as you can imagine, art is not one of the prime missions of the Port Authority. The Métro transit system  here in Montreal has commissioned art. When a new station is built, they usually commission an artist to create a work of art.  This is not perhaps a collection in the usual sense, but it is art in public spaces…. It’s art in the environment…. It’s installation art….   It’s art commissioned for specific sites.

 

The Directory describes these programs also.   Not public art of a general nature, because all cities have public art. But if they are governed by an entity like a port authority or a transit authority, then yes, they are included.  Convention centres have collections of art….airports, too, have art collections.  Airports are usually quasi-government institutions.

 

The definitions of course vary from country to country.   That’s one of the challenges that I discovered. There are  wonderful collections in Asia. Are they private companies? Are they government companies? Are they personal collections?   Here in Montreal  for instance, Loto-Québec has a wonderful collection. It’s in the Directory because Loto-Quebec is a business -- it is the entity that manages the Provincial lotteries, but it is also quasi-governmental body. That’s why for each company in the directory, there is a category for the “Governing Authority”.

 

Peterson: In Canada there’s the expression “Crown Corporations”? Would they be in your Directory? For example, Air Canada.

 

Howarth: Yes, they would be and are. Also the City of London is a corporation. So that  is included. It’s not a museum, but it has its own collection. The City of Toronto has an art collection. Loto-Québec has a gallery of art in the lobby area as you go in the building on Sherbrooke Street, and it also places art in the work place for employees. This is a challenge each company has to deal with individually. Some companies have exhibition spaces. The Banque Nationale Tower, near Victoria Square, has moveable partitions in the lobby for exhibition purposes.

 

It has always been difficult to make a corporate collection more accessible for viewing by a wider public.  It can be disruptive and a security problem if the public is allowed to wander through the work space looking at art works. It can be very distracting for the employees. So that is often a challenge for the companies -- trying to make the collection more accessible -- and each company has to decide how to solve this issue in their own way. 

Peterson: Could you estimate how many new corporations go into the Directory with each edition?

 

Howarth: Probably about a hundred new ones. It’s a nightmare to keep updated because of the mergers and because of companies going out of business . Like the JP Morgan – Chase merger, they both had impressive and large collections that had to be combined.  Some collections disappear completely like Seagrams. This  was a superb, well thought-out collection assembled by people who understood and knew art.  It had been assembled over many years, so that the sum total was larger than the individual parts.  The collection was dispersed when it was sold at auction last year.

 

Peterson: So that’s what you would probably advise a corporation to do long before the spectre of a merger begins?

 

Howarth: Yes. To plan ahead to assure that the collection stays intact…. by creating a trust or foundation entity that will live beyond the life of the company.

 

Every corporate collection is very different. That’s what one must remember. Here are some examples of the wide-ranging differences in the orientations of corporations.

 

The Progressive Corporation – high risk insurance

There is one corporation, the Progressive Corporation, that specializes in high-risk insurance, automobile insurance. Their art collection is purposely meant to astonish.

 

Progressive Corporation Statement: The collection is designed to surprise, to please and even provoke employees. The curator of the collection, Toby Lewis said, “What I don’t want is the art that has the wall paper effect. This is a challenging collection.” While encouraging originality the art collection shows respect for all people. The art in the collection is often provocative, has fostered discussions and, sometimes, passionate controversy through the years.”

 

Here is a different orientation:

UBS Statement: “Art reflects who we are as a society, as an individual, and as an institution. It can remind us of our collective heritage, or hint at our future. The same goes for us. The UBS Art Collection reflects the many paths our business has taken as we have grown to become one of the world’s largest financial institutions. It incorporates the major works from our former collections in both the US and Europe, mirroring the businesses that have become a part of us in that time. We actively want to reach out and share our passion with our clients and the public.”

 

UBS is a Swiss bank with an extraordinary art program. Over the years, they have merged with several other banks. They also purchased Paine-Webber in New York City, which had a very important art collection.

RadioShack has just completed construction for their new corporate headquaters. It opened just a two months ago in downtown Fort Worth. I shall read you their mission statement.  This is a branding collection. From the beginning, they wanted to consider including art in their new headquarters.

RadioShack: “When we first dreamed about creating a new home for RadioShack, we were adamant about its transcending mere bricks and mortar. Our Riverfront Campus is designed from the ground up to be an active driver of our business strategy.”

They are using art as a part of their business strategy. RadioShack says about itself, “It’s all about creating a culture at Radio Shack that is open to new ideas, driven to better serve our customers, and forever learning and growing.” They commissioned works of art that either used Radio Shack components or reflect Radio Shack business in some way.

 

Some people would be offended by that, saying that companies are forcing the artist into being a publicist for the company. But the challenge for RadioShack was to find artists who would be willing to work within those parameters. And they had a very positive response from the artistic community.  The artists enjoyed it thoroughly because they had an opportunity to think in totally different ways. They were given access to RadioShack products, cutting-edge technology, and they created works of art that reflected RadioShack in some way. These were simply art commissions and they were hired to work within certain parameters.

 

RadioShack did art project because they wanted to promote out-of-the-box thinking. They wanted to reflect the idea that RadioShack does things in unusual ways.  Their mission statement, “The art at the Riverside Front Campus is intended to encourage people to use both sides of their brains.” It’s incredible for a company to put that in a mission statement. They are actively encouraging creative and original  thinking!

The Microsoft Corporation

Corporate art collections can reveal a great deal about a company and its approach to business.  For example, Microsoft knows that their Windows users are primarily young, in their twenties and thirties, and well educated and somewhat liberal.  That is the picture of their audience. So they tend to purchase artworks from emerging artists in their twenties and thirties. This helps to build customer and community relations.

 

Microsoft Mission Statement: The Collection’s mission is to help create a positive work environment and appealing business setting at Microsoft. Presenting original art in the workplace offers an important respite, inpiration, and challenge for the thousands of people who interact with the Collection every day. Art inspires creative thinking and offers people a chance to see life from a different perspective, which can in turn foster elements essential to a company’s success.

 

Microsoft sees its customers as young and and educated. In one of their statements they point out that they are interested in art by artists in that group:

 

Microsoft Statement: The Collection fosters creative excellence of significant reigonal and national scope by presenting and interpreting international  contemporary art of the highest quality by emerging and mid-career artists.

 

That’s using art in a way that most people would not expect. We’re not talking about investment here. We’re talking about reflecting the company’s values. For example, look at some of the conservative English banks. The art works they have on their walls are portraits of their former CEOs. Some of them of course go back to Gainsborough, and the company’s are very conservative. It’s not exploiting the art the way earlier collections might have done. Instead, the art expresses the company’s values in a much more subtle manner.

 

The Importance of Patronage

 

Peterson: You have used the expression that the corporations are the “new Medicis”. That’s a wonderful expression. Take the Medici family. They may have promoted and sponsored art for their own self-glorification. But aren’t we thankful to them despite their wrong motivation?

 

Howarth: I’m a great supporter and believer in art patronage. I think the world we live in, and the history we have as human beings has not been kind to artists. If it hadn’t been for the various patrons, like the church, the popes, the Medicis, the world would be a much poorer place to live in artistically.

 

Peterson: The churches are a good a example. Much of the art that they commissioned serves up the message of the church. Isn’t it PR?

 

Howarth:  Yes, in a way, it is delivering a message.  I do get a little bit irritated and frustrated because many artists still view creating art for corporations  as a form of prostitution -- that the artist has prostituted himself by creating a work of art and selling it to a corporation. There are some artists who won’t even sell art to a corporation -- I think this is a very limited  way of viewing the creative process.  

 

Also,  I think that manypeople in the art world discredit corporate art collections – saying that  there’s nothing important being collected or commissioned there. That’s false. The corporations are a force in the art world.  Corporations have had a huge impact on the art world. In some rural communities, the corporations may be the only ones purchasing art, so the artists are thankful for their support.   It is really up to the artist to decide for himself.  I don’t view it as a form of "selling out" to big business.  Painting or sculpting a work of art is indeed a creative experience no matter what the motivation.  And it is the creation of a work of art that is the important point – not who chooses to buy or exhibit it!

 

Peterson: The Sistine Chapel is a PR work.

 

Howarth: Yes, in a manner of speaking, and unfortunately, Michelangelo had to go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy the Pope, but he created an exquisite work of art. He understood and acknowledged that he was dealing with a patron  who had a particular message.

 

The Role of Foundations:

Peterson: You said, “they buy the artists”. Do corporations have programs that foster artists by taking them under their wings?

 

Howarth: That’s probably not very typical. I can’t think of any company off the top of my head, that has done it that directly. They support artists on individual commissions. If a corporation is building a glorious new building, they want artists to create wonderful new works of art for it.  The guidelines, by the way, are usually rather flexible. So the artist comes back to the corporation with various proposals that are then selected.

 

One of the types of support you mention -- direct support of artists through providing studio space -- is usually more the interest of foundations. The Cartier Foundation -- a separate division of the Cartier Company in France -- not only supports the arts, but has a tradition of supporting the creation of art, and providing stimulation and support for artists. In the past they have created sculpture grounds with studios for the artists.  In Europe there are a couple of arrangements like that, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in North America along the same lines.

Governments and corporations:

Peterson: Governments have museums and collections of art. Some governments have been criticized for their purchases of art. After all, opposition parties can have a field day criticizing the expenditure of public funds on “questionable art”. One thinks of “The Voice of Fire” that was much talked about in the newspapers a few years ago. Do corporations sometimes make mistakes and admit doing so?

 

Howarth: Yes, they do. When a new CEO comes in, he will sometimes sell purchases by an earlier CEO or may even eliminate an entire art program. The new CEO’s announce that they have to tighten belts, cut back, eliminate frivolity, and sell the art collection. This can happen when the company’s profits are down. Unfortunately, often the first thing to go is the art collection.. That’s the one of the drawbacks in the world of corporate art collecting. It is subject to the vagaries of business cycles.

 

In a  museum, the works of art are protected and will  probably not be sold.  They are part of the museum's collection for posterity.  Whereas, the corporate environment is much more speculative. It is subject to the business the company is in.  If the business goes through an economic downturn, then the collection is in danger.  And that is the problem -- when a corporate collection is assembled under one management, it can be sold when the company merges or is sold. So there’s no security or continuity.

 

Peterson: You’ve just come back from Paris. I hope you enjoyed the food over there. You were there for a conference. What kind of a conference was it?

 

Howarth: I was invited to give a speech to the British Council for Offices, which is a professional association of architects and real estate development people. This was their annual meeting. One of the sessions was on the benefits of art in the work place. It was an attempt to persuade and help architects and developers see the benefit of considering art as an essential part of the office buildings they are planning -- Art is not an add-on.

 

Peterson: Why do they have to think about this ahead of time?

 

Howarth: In the case of many office buildings, the art is purchased later and is just hung on the walls. But it makes for better buildings if the art is considered an integral part of the building's design  from the beginning. Architects who build office buildings usually think in terms of functionality.  Architecture is about space and form.  They want, of course, to create aesthetic buildings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the buildings are ready to accommodate art works.  Incorporating art does not always enter into their awareness. I find that frustrating, because an art work always adds to a building’s atmosphere and design -- the art creates the environment of the office building.  Many architects view art as an intrusion into  their design and space.  But I think it is helpful if they view instead, of art as a benefit. It makes their building more desirable.

So I’m not saying that an architect should build in gallery space with each new corporate building he designs. But what I am saying, is that an architect should take into account the very real possibility that art will be displayed in this building, in the offices, in the board rooms, and in the cafeteria. The public places are good locations for special commissions of art. They might want to consider commissioning a special mural or large scale works of art in the cafeteria, or in the board room or in the atrium. 

 

Peterson: What does the architect need to think about ahead of time?

Howarth: Art in the workplace has certain challenges. Subject matter may be a consideration, because overly violent or openly sexual works may not be suitable for a work environment.  The form of the art may also be a consideration.  For example, you can’t have works of art with lots of projecting points. You can’t have things that are hazardous. If works are subject to light damage, anything on paper -- photographs or prints on paper -- soon the works will be completely faded  because often you can’t control the amount of light in an office environment.  Although smoking in offices is not as much of an issue today as before, cigarette smoke damages works of art, so you have to take into consideration that some locations may not be suitable for artworks.  After all, an office environment is not meant to be a museum.  In placing art, you have to think about how it can be integrated into the workplace – not take it over!

 

Art in the Work Place – and the Workers

Peterson: CEOs make decisions about the art. Do the workers themselves have any input into the choice of the art?

Howarth: Ah, yes. That’s an important aspect. Thank you for bringing that up. In the early days, no. It was the CEO. What he said was generally carried out.  It has become a much more democratic process today.  Even though the CEO is the head of the company, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is knowledgeable in art selection or has art expertise.

 

The trend now is to have art selection committees made up of interested employees, as well as art people, administrative people. I think that this is a good idea.  In many companies, like General Mills, that have extensive art programs, the employees select their art in their own offices. That’s pretty much the trend here in Montreal, too. In the public spaces, the curator is in charge of the arrangement. But within the office environment employees can select something they would like over their desk. It is only common sense -- if a work of art irritates you all day long, it’s counter productive. In fact, in some companies, the art work becomes a very important aspect of the life of the employees in that company. They begin to love the art environment.

 

Some administrators have suggested eliminating all art from the company, and the employees became outraged. I’ve heard of one case where a company removed a work of art from an office, and the employee was so outraged that he protested vehemently.  It escalated to the point  that the employee actually resigned because he felt that the company was insensitive to his well-being, and that he did not wish to work for a company that cared so little about its employees. A company does that type of thing at its own peril.

 

Every business is different. That’s what is fascinating about corporate art: every corporation is different --  like individuals. Some corporations think more locally or regionally; some have large numbers of branches around the world so  they think more globally. For example, in the case of Sprint, most of the art was purchased from Kansas City artists. Even though Microsoft has a global reach, they tend to buy much of their art from regional artists.  Other companies like Alcan acquired art from all of the countries where they have business interests.

 

Humanity is creative. No matter what society evolves into, there will be individuals who are creative – who will reflect what the society is. You wouldn’t expect a progressive mission statement from more conservative institutions like banks. They will think more in terms of the value of the work of art.

 

The Importance of Original Works

Peterson: Some corporations or offices hang up reproductions, perhaps cheap reproductions. What do you think of that?

 

Howarth: I do not include reproductions in the Directory. I only include companies that acquire original art.   Some corporations may  pay more for framing and hanging reproductions than they would pay if they bought originals from local artists.

 

And an important thing to realize is that reproductions don’t have the same impact as an original work of art.  An original work of art can change people. It generates an emotion that isn’t possible from a reproduction. This is one of the tragedies in our educational system. When I was teaching art history and when I was studying, we used slides – we were not viewing the original work of art but a pale reproduction.  Students and even art historians are accustomed to looking at slides. I’ve heard people lecture about artists who have never seen the original works. They’ve learned about an artist from books or slides. It’s important to go into the museums and see the original work. Books don’t have the same spirit -- they don’t speak the same way -- they don’t have the same soul. Having art in the work place is a wonderful experience.  

Conclusion

Art in the workplace is really a part of a larger trend. It is a part of the trend towards humanizing the work place. Every year there are surveys about the best places to work. The companies  that are high up on the list always have art collections. It’s symptomatic of the environment of the company and how they view the importance of their employees. Of course they also have athletic clubs and day care and good compensation packages. It’s all part of the environment and its part of the trend towards making the office a better place to work.  …. And improving the quality of life for everyone.