A curved building filled with light.

A curved building filled with light.

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Working Artfully: How Art Can Help Your Business

In the dim and distant past, that is in March 2004, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst released the results of two surveys it had done, and published its findings under the heading “Business and the Arts Make Great Partners: Survey Reveals Workplace Art Collections Are Valuable for Business.”

Collecting art and exhibiting it as a sort of a cultural trophy in the corridors of HQ is not exactly a new idea, but that isn't exactly what the article is suggesting. Keeping a company’s relationship with the Arts to a simple sponsor/beneficiary schema keeps it at a level of understanding which has not changed very much in centuries, and shortchanges both the benefactors and the artists.

We may actually go further and acknowledge that the relationship that companies have with the Arts has become more shallow since the Renaissance times. The Medici knew how to get the maximum value from their artists – by working with them, and not just commissioning their works. Commissioning by itself is, of course, a wonderful thing. It keeps artists fed and watered; the patrons are satisfied with how their support is translated into creating beautiful, meaningful objects; and the critics and dealers get their wheels greased.

However, that is just the beginning of what the relationship between business and the Arts could look like.

And so, back to the University of Massachusetts article. The first survey delivered some interesting results. Art in the workplace was, evidently, seen as “enhancing the work environment” by 94% of the respondents. That is not the interesting part, since that can be taken as the primary function of art in the workplace. But then 84% agreed that it evidenced the company’s interest in improving the quality of life both in and out of the workplace. More than two-thirds of respondents also agreed that having art in the workplace helped to build relationships with customers, the community (three quarters), and increased networking opportunities (more than half.)

Art as a catalyst for relationship building; now there is an idea.

Of course, a great majority of people did not consider art to be one of the reasons for working at a company but agreed that it was important in the work environment, and they said that their view of the company would change if the art were taken away.

The second survey, carried out by the Business Committee for the Arts and the International Association for Professional Art Advisors, was remarkable. It asked a different set of questions, aiming to understand the nature of employees’ relationship to the artworks which were displayed within their workspace. The sample size was rather small (some 800 people at 32 US-based companies which have art collections) so it is fair to say that more work needs to be done, but the results were illuminating.

A majority of respondents agreed that having art in the workplace helped them reduce stress (more than three-quarters), increased creativity and productivity, and enhanced morale (more than two-thirds), and broadened people’s appreciation of diversity, encouraging discussions and expression of opinion (again, more than three-quarters.) Even allowing that some of the respondents may have ticked “agree” boxes to make themselves feel more cool and their employers feel appreciated for their efforts, this is a very clear indication that people like having art in their workspace, and that this art somehow improves their relationship with it.

A Call to Arts

In a 2012 interview in the Financial Times, Deutsche Bank’s former head of art, Friedhelm Hütte, was unequivocal in his opinion: “Art is not an extra, a luxury. It’s really an essential part of the bank.” On his quarter-century watch, the bank substantially enlarged its collection, which now counts in the high tens of thousands of pieces, by artists from every corner of the World, and has run substantial exhibitions and commissioned installations in many of the World’s art capitals. The bank has even produced smartphone apps that serve as guides to the works and the artists who made them. As substantial as that relationship is, however, it is still constrained to the very traditional model. Which is a pity, because clearly more is possible.

Lockheed Martin’s Norman Augustine talks about “the beauty and utility of Beethoven, Van Gogh and Shakespeare.” The beauty, and utility, of art. Given that higher morale, increased creativity, and better dialogue in a diverse group of people in the mix which helps organizations build a culture of innovation, why is there no wholesale investment in artists by all companies, everywhere? In artists, not just in art.

The problem with the slow adoption of art as a partner of business begins with the language used to describe their relationship. Businesses and people who are able to buy pieces made by artists are “in the enviable position of being able to purchase art.” The pieces need to be “professionally appraised”, the work is either “tasteful” or “challenging” if it is deemed good, “derivative” or “bland” if not, and so on and so forth. All well and good; there is an industry to be supported. It is puzzling, however, why the “art world” has not made deeper inroads into the corporate sphere, adding more ways in which business can benefit from artists as thinking human beings and not merely producers of interesting, worthwhile, maybe even beautiful objects.

Relationships between artists and businesses can extend across far more planes than companies buying their work to hang on walls, and several of those ways go directly towards supporting the growth of a culture of creativity within your organization. Art and business are intertwined; they are both the practice and the expression of our attempts at understanding and molding reality, and both are driven by the creative principle.

Olafur Eliasson, the Danish / Icelandic artist and designer best known for his large installations such as The Weather Project at the Tate Modern in London, is particularly scornful of attempts to keep artists in their ivory towers, and he presents art as a very practical part of life. In a 2015 interview for Wired, he said: “I like to take away the posture of the artist as some kind of mystical, divine world-shaper. I’m very skeptical about that idea. [...] I am interested in the relationship between you and the artist. Because the artist makes no demand of you, does not try to sell to you, you feel you are coproducing your experience. Art, the creative muscle, is a trust machine. It’s important because as politics, business and finance are losing people’s trust, artists are retaining it. Culture has the highest public trust levels of any economic sector. And it can bring about not only the potential for feeling, but also for acting.”

Not least, art can make it obvious just how small and limited our perception of reality really is. This, of course, can be threatening but once people interacting with the art get past the level of immediate threat, the value of art at work can reveal itself. Beginning in the 1920s, with Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Experiments, researchers have been investigating the influence which art has in improving work environments, and on the well being, effectiveness and creativity of the people in those environments.

More recently, Craig Knight has spent a large portion of his career studying how working environments affect people’s well-being, creativity and productivity. The psychologist, based at the University of Exeter, has formed very definite ideas about what helps people reach their potential at work, and a direct relationship with art is high on the list of priorities. In a 2016 interview in The Guardian, he explained: “There is a real tendency to opt for sanitized, lean workspaces, designed to encourage staff to just get on with their work and avoid distraction. [...] If you enrich a space people feel much happier and work better; a very good way of doing this is by using art.”

A constant search

Artists are not content with the status quo. In fact, preservation of the status quo has been, through the modern era, perceived as the antithesis to art. Composer John Cage said: “Every time I’m accepted by my audience, I move to the place where I’m not.” Art is change. It is what makes art subversive and dangerous and, incidentally, is the reason why every petty dictator has seen fit to look for ways to have “official art,” sympathetic to and complimentary of the regime. The spirit of art goes against the grain of accepted thinking as it is always in search of the new. This is a quality that can do more than improve the morale of your people as they go about implementing the innovation process – it can be the sustaining force for such a process.

What approaches can you learn from artists and other creative professionals? A very strong case for a closer relationship of art and business, this time on a very personal level, is made by David Whyte. As poet and consultant Whyte freely swaps his business hat and his art hat, or rather argues that the two ought to be integrated, and that, in order to reclaim meaning in their lives, both leaders and employees need to consciously engage with art. Whyte relates the experience of making poetry directly to the experience of radical change in an organisation, and quotes from the opening of Dante’s Divine Comedy, pointing to how the text could be a description of being on a changing career path: “In the middle of the road of my life, I awoke in a dark wood, where the way was wholly lost.” If you are set to change direction, the path may become entirely invisible, if it exists at all.

To access the emotional reserves required in such a process, we need to free ourselves from the perceived need to remain rigidly rational which, as we have seen, is nothing but a culturally imposed illusion and to get beyond it, we need to perceive reality in new ways. Innovation means drawing on numerous sources for inspiration and practice. In the arts and creative industries, cross-fertilization between fields and disciplines is a well-established tradition and an accepted process.

Musicians, provided they are open to new flavors, can easily establish rapport with others, coming from musical traditions that may be very different from theirs. Notable examples abound: Ravi Shankar working with Philip Glass, Nigel Kennedy experimenting with folk by working with the klezmer band Kroke, Paul Simon giving world music a major hand-up with his collaborative Rhythm of the Saints album, John McLaughlin’s long-standing love affair with Indian music. Miriam Makeba, the great diva of South African jazz, was just as much at home in soul, marabi and pop. Cooks, too, provided they are open to working with rhythms other than those found in their own kitchens, also find cross-fertilization fairly simple. The language of taste, where spices and ingredients are the vocabulary, is universal – as evidenced by the late great Anthony Bourdain’s magnum opus Parts Unknown or images of Gordon Ramsay cooking curry at a Mumbai street vendor’s stall. The most inventive cooks regularly combine schools and cuisines. Things get a little more complicated and demanding in other disciplines, where the modes of expression are less immediate and the conventions more formal, but examples still come thick and fast.

Cross-fertilization

Meanwhile, business has been slowly taking up the idea with, sometimes, spectacular results. Not Invented Here, by innovation consultants Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleven, chronicles many examples of successful cross-industry DNA swapping for new products and services, through remixes of business models and design ideas from the automotive industry to toy making and outdoor entertainment to banking. Examples of cross-fertilization between art and business are also easy to find, once you start to look.

Fashion brands, already comfortable in that malleable space between art and business, have been busy making those connections for many years. Burberry, Cartier, Chanel and many others have collaborated with artists in their branding as well as in product design. In fact, branding of consumer products – as the most obvious and easiest to exploit all the avenues for possible collaboration – has seen many mutually beneficial projects. As a collector of espresso cups, for instance, I can attest to this being a particularly fruitful field of cooperation – from limited editions for the giant Illy, to beautifully designed cups for individual coffee houses. Residencies, where a corporation provides an artist with space to work and some kind of financial support, have also been growing in popularity – since the beginning of the practice in the 19th century. Even Facebook has ongoing artist residencies, and as for making it easy for artists and businesses to find each other, there are now at least twenty organizations that coordinate and promote such programs worldwide.

All this is pointing to the inevitability of the next step in building positive relationships between art and business – placing artists right in the workplace to explore what happens when the disciplines meet. Once we start looking, however, it very quickly turns out that this is not a new idea, either. It has been tried and tested many times, and business leaders have been arguing to have more such opportunities for at least a generation.

When the German industrial conglomerate AEG engaged architect and artist Peter Behrens in the first decade of the 20th century, he served as the firm’s “artistic director.” (His subsequent romance with Nazism is less attractive.) In the 1960s and 70s, Bell Labs – owned by America’s largest telecommunication company, AT&T – provided space and facilities to thirty teams, each consisting of an avant garde artist and a Bell engineer. John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and other stars of the East Village scene took part.

The project was a massive success, with scientific advances and artistic kudos as rewards. Billy Klüver, the Bell engineer who masterminded the program (which became known as EAT, Experiments in Art and Technology) noticed how quickly artists and engineers could strike up a rapport. In an interview in 1995, when EAT was still very much operational, he was quoted as saying “Once the engineer and the artist get to talk together, if there’s anything there – it will happen. If there isn’t, it will die in ten seconds. It’s happened that way for 30 years.” Another example, a vector coming in from the art side this time, was the Artist Placement Group. Beginning in London in the mid-1960s and continuing until the end of the 1980s, it operated as an artist-run agency of sorts, but it did not simply concern itself with selling artworks. It hired out the artists – by connecting them to a business or a public administration body for defined periods of time.

Observers from the business side have had their occasional reservations, given artists’ natural tendency towards breaking norms, but they have also seen the value in such collaboration. In a 1978 article in Management Review, titled “Business and art: A creative, practical partnership,” fashion executive and arts philanthropist Peter Scotese brought up three “obvious benefits” which were to be derived from art/business cross-pollination:

1. Artists’ natural methods of working and broad outlook provided a “window to the future”

2. Witnessing artists at work offered opportunities for employees to develop their perceptive and expressive skills

3. Engagement with art meant being able to gain “improved sensitivity” to societal trends. If anything, today his words ring more true and sound a more urgent message.

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