Big business looks to fine artists to enhance its image
When Norcal, a sanitation company in San Francisco, needed to inform the local community that used electronics shouldn't be thrown in the garbage, it looked to Sudhu Tewari. When SAS Institute, a software company, wanted to spruce up its campus in Cary, N.C., it hired Holly Brewster Jones. When Sun Microsystems decided to mount an interactive software exhibit in San Jose, Calif., it selected Ashok Sukumaran to implement it.
Tewari, Jones and Sukumaran aren’t businessmen or engineers trained to solve corporate problems; they are artists. Several companies from hotel owners to software manufacturers to ceramic makers have been creating artist-in-residence programs to promote their businesses. Some of the companies ask the artist to create work devoted to a particular cause. Others see the artists as sources of imagination and creation in the workplace. Some companies use the artist-in-residence programs to generate office art.
Artists are eager to snap up these positions, as well as the stipend and the studio and gallery space that comes with them. In an age when the government provides little financial support for the arts, these companies have given important backing to artists who might not otherwise have the time, means or ability to produce art.
At Norcal, the artists are also eager to get access to the company’s transfer station garbage pit. In 1990, Norcal opened its dump to an artist, William Wareham, a sculptor who works with metals. Wareham was asked to create a piece that promoted recycling. Since then Norcal has had between two and eight artists reconfiguring waste into art in its studio.
Tewari, an audio programmer at Leap Frog, a toy manufacturer, used to spend his extra time scavenging for electronics in garbage cans. He was already turning his neighbors' trash into musical instruments, so he applied for the Norcal residency.
Tewari said he had found a "gold mine" of stereo equipment, television sets, DVD players and other electronic gear when he started exploring the Norcal Dumpsters. "I had access to tons and tons of stuff," he said. "And I had the space to blow it all up. I could do whatever I wanted."
He also got half of a $1,900-a-month stipend, a 2,000-square-foot studio and a gallery show. The other half of the stipend went to Nome Edonna, a sculptor with whom Tewari shared the residency. After the show, Norcal kept three pieces for its art collection from each artist. The company displays the pieces in San Francisco office buildings, a three-acre sculpture garden next to its transfer station and in the Norcal offices.
“It’s great, we don’t have pictures of big garbage trucks on the wall,” said Paul Fresina, the director of the residency program.
SAS Institute's artist-in-residence program started in 1991, when Dr. James Goodnight, the co-founder of the software company, realized that it would be cheaper to hire Holly Brewster Jones, a local North Carolina artist, than to buy her watercolors. She started painting eight works a month in her studio.
“They bought me an easel, bought me materials, put me in a studio and said, ‘Paint,'” she recalled. “There’s huge security in working for a company. You have medical benefits and a salary.”
Eventually Jones started buying art for the company’s offices. A second artist in residence, Juliana Novozhilova, was hired late last fall. The program at SAS has grown to a seven-person department, which includes two artists in residence, three framers, an administrator who catalogs the works and a supervisor.
“Here at SAS we have on-site medical care, child care services, a racquetball court,” said Roxanne Hicklin, the director of art and scenic operations at SAS. “Those take care of employees' health; artwork helps nourish the soul.”
When Suzanne Tremblay, the owner of the Gershwin Hotel in New York, wanted to distinguish her hotel from others in the city, she decided to turn to artists. Each year she picks about eight artists from around the world to stay for free in the hotel for two to six weeks. She received more than 100 applications this year. Each artist is required to present a completed work at the end of the residency.
"They can't have a four-star hotel room, but our guests can be in a movie or attend a reading,” Tremblay said.
With the help of large companies, artists have access to materials and facilities they otherwise might not have. Kohler, a company in Sheboygan, Wis., best known for its plumbing fixtures, offers artists in residence at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center access to the company’s machinery.
Still the corporate backing can be stifling to artists who previously had no limits on what they created. Companies put some restrictions on the artists. Jones had to adapt to the demands of SAS, which meant sometimes forgoing her watercolors for more vivid, abstract pieces. Tewari had to stop experimenting with sound waves at one point to make sure he delivered enough pieces for his show.
Sun Microsystems enlisted Sukumaran not just to be creative, but to add “a new dimension to our understanding of technology,” Glenn Edens, Sun’s senior vice president, said in a press release. Sukumaran’s residency ended last summer, and Sun currently does not have an artist in residence, according to a spokesperson.
Tremblay requires that the Gershwin Hotel’s artists in residence pursue a project that is unique to New York City. “This is not about shopping at Saks," she said. "It’s about creating art.”
But artists who accept positions at corporations run the risk of appearing that they have given up their integrity for health insurance and a retirement plan. When Jones initially went to work for SAS, several of her artist friends became upset with her.
“They were mad at me," she said. "It was like I was leaving the fold.”
Tewari had to promote the company’s message when he worked with Norcal’s public relations staff on press releases and brochures for his show.
"I had a hard time talking to the PR guy. He kept asking me, 'What's your message?'" Tewari said. "With my stuff it's about showing people what they can do with trash. I just hope they think it's cool."