Corporate Art as Public Art

An Emerging Venue for the Emerging Artist

by Sydell Lewis

Corporations are providing multitudinous, interesting public venues for contemporary artists, including those just emerging. Their patronage of arts in the late twentieth century is comparable to that of the Church during the Italian Renaissance, and has been an important force in keeping the art world solvent.

The director of a major San Francisco gallery recently told me that corporate sales have been the bread and butter of his business during the lean times of the 1990s and that his retail business alone could not have sustained the gallery. A second equally important similarity of both patronages is in bringing culture to the general public. Acquisitions placed in the urban environment or the work place introduce art to a large segment of the population who is not accustomed to visiting museums and galleries. Philadelphia, for example, is a city enriched with corporate-financed modern sculpture of which its inhabitants are justifiably proud.* The city requires that 1% of the budget for all new center- city building construction be spent on public art.

The character of corporate art ranges from the sublime to the provocative to the questionable depending upon the collectors vision, budget, art consultant and the eye of the beholder. An intriguing corporate contribution to the urban environment of New York City is five slabs of the Berlin Wall, each about 5000 pounds and twelve feet tall, including the art of Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny. This installation stands at 520 Madison Avenue in a plaza complete with fountain, tables and chairs. The person responsible for this is Jerry Speyer, an ardent collector/magnate and a partner in the firm of Tishmann and Speyer, owners of the building. In addition, the company placed two enormous, exciting Frank Stella sculptures at the entrance of the building they rent to Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising Corporation.

Corporate collections have been created for investment, prestige or decoration, and often the key player is an avid collector, as in the case of Speyer. However, sometimes the reason is simply that public art functions to enrich the environment of the work place. With this view in mind, I will highlight a company called TCSI, a Bay Area software corporation with offices in Berkeley and San José. This firm recently acquired a significant art collection which includes the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Squeak Carnwath, Christopher Brown, Joseph Raphael, Tom Holland, Mark Adams and numerous mid-career and emerging artists. The story of what brought this company to the point of suddenly becoming a collector, with the purchase of 135 pieces of art within a few years, is heartening for the artist. I interviewed Vera Leo, Director of Administration and the driving force behind the project, and learned that the parent company originally commissioned art that was directly related to company products. The commissioned work included photomurals of products, paintings and prints of printed circuit boards, but failed the test of time even over the short term. When TCSI was formed as a spin-off company, Leo rented real art. She emphasized that the art was not selected as decoration but as enrichment for the work place. The result was better but still unsatisfactorythe best work was not always available, the installations lacked coherence, frames were mismatched, and there was much employee criticism. Despite these problems Leo persevered. Lacking the confidence to purchase art on her own, she eventually discovered the services of art consultants and convinced the CEO of TCSI, Roger Strauch, a man with a strong appreciation of the arts, to purchase a permanent collection. Leo selected Tecoah Bruce, a highly experienced consultant and the President of the Board of Trustees of the California College of Arts and Crafts. At the first meeting 80 out of 100 works reviewed were chosen. Bruce proceeded to turn the corridors of TCSI into galleries. All works were framed with natural wood and labelled with title, medium and artist. The space has excitement, coherence and elegance, and, most importantly, it creates an environment conducive to thought. Leo says it is the only area of the business where there has been entirely positive feedback and no complaints.

The corporate art selection process which uses a professional consultant is for the most part based on preference and budget. Artists, regardless of gender and career stage, have opportunities for sales. Most major corporations provide permanent venues so that a wide audience gets a chance to become intimate with the artists works. Hopefully the 21st century will bring increased corporate patronage as smaller companies realize the importance of a culturally rich public work place, and cities follow the example of Philadelphia in encouraging corporate urban involvement."

*Penny Balken Bach, Public Art in Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1992.

Sydell Lewis is a Bay Area printmaker and painter who has lived in Philadelphia and frequents New York.

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