Corporate art goes beyond pretty walls. Bold programs try to spark creativity

Two years ago, the Faxon Company decided to make its Norwood, Mass., office permanent headquarters for Faxon, a library subscription agency. Company president Richard Rowe, however, felt the building was missing something: an art collection. But he didn't acquire a series of oiled flowers or watercolored landscapes. Instead, Mr. Rowe commissioned artist Mags Harries, of Cambridge, Mass., to create a contemporary sculpture - one that would be relevant to his business, which serves as a broker between book publishers and libraries, and would encourage his employees to be open minded.

Today, Ms. Harries's trees of glued-together, hacked-away books stand like soldiers of the avant-garde in Faxon's forest of blue-gray work stations. The employees may still be getting used to them, but Rowe is delighted. ``If it's making people think,'' says Faxon's Carole Hirsch, who manages the headquarters building, ``it's doing what it's meant to do.''

Corporate art today barely resembles the modest trend that began in the late 1950s. Now, at least 1,200 North American companies actively collect art, says Valerie F. Brooks, editor of Corporate Art News. And as the number increases, so does tolerance for the new and unusual.

Small companies that cannot afford masterworks - and even larger companies that want to spotlight local talent in their new buildings - are turning to the products of emerging artists.

``Corporations are becoming more adventurous,'' says Boston art consultant Joyce Paulson. ``I think they even get kind of competitive with each other [about their art].''

Those leading the corporate art trend have moved beyond pretty walls. Employee education and strong statements have replaced Impressionist paintings and gracious d'ecor. These days, executives say they're more interested in sparking employee creativity than in appearing au courant to clients.

And they've developed new ways of doing so. Michelle Isenberg, a corporate art consultant in Los Angeles, says many of her clients prefer rotating exhibits for their buildings.

``That way,'' she says, ``they can use stronger, more aggressive work. If people hate it, it'll be going in three months anyway.''

In one of the nation's most adventurous corporate art programs, Minnesota's First Banks System uses contemporary art to create dialogue and dissent among employees. Dialogue and education, says First Banks curator Lynne Sowder, are more important in the program than simply creating a comfortable working environment.

First Banks employees can react to the more outrageous of the 2,800 works - like a dinosaur sculpture covered with fake fur - through Talk-back, a program of questionnaires and informal meetings for employees to air their grievances or approval of the company's art. They can even banish works they dislike to Controversy Corridor - away from public view.

Ms. Sowder says her program has been successful, simply because employees are engaging in discussion. And she adds that most workers have become more receptive to new kinds of art.

But the real winners of this newfound corporate interest in the new and daring seem to be emerging artists. Many artists say they are finding commissions easier to come by, while the growing number of consultants, curators, newsletters, and galleries specializing in corporate art are making it easier still for lesser-known artists and companies to find each other.

Nine years ago Boston artist Jude Larzelere had to haul slides of her quilted wall hangings around to local businesses to get commissions. Now, she says, there's a host of art consultants to do it for her.

``It leaves me uncluttered time in my studio to be creative,'' Ms. Larzelere says.

And while she says she's less than enthusiastic about the consultants' standard 50 percent commission, she still winds up ahead because of the corporations' growing interest. ``The idea of decorating a corporate area with a quilt is very hot right now,'' Larzelere explains. ``And there are a lot of sales that just didn't used to be there.''

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