Works of art

The average office is hardly a joy to work in. Emma O Kelly looks at one of the ways to banish the greys.

Crowds may be heading in droves to the Royal Academy for a sensational hit of Brit art at its most raw, but as the UK gives itself a congratulatory pat on the back, aren’t we forgetting something? For, while our galleries brim with fabulous works and our cities bulge with creativity, what about the British workplace? You could be forgiven for thinking glorious technicolour hadn’t yet been invented, whenever you go into almost any of the nation’s drab, open-plan workspaces, where the only light relief is a noticeboard crammed with Polaroids of the insalubrious goings-on at the office party.

And while technology, lighting and furniture all play a part in achieving the paperless workspace which is a joy to be in, what about art? Ten years ago, Reed Personnel Services did a survey into the office aesthetic. It revealed that more than 50 per cent of offices were painted brown, beige or cream, while two thirds of workers said they would never have such colour schemes in the home and complained that not enough attention was paid to office decor. Ten years on, no other such surveys have been carried out and workers have had to make do with faded pictures of abstract blocks.

However, according to art consultancies, companies are starting to make more effort. As concern rises over sick building syndrome, the pressure is on to create a healthy working environment and art has a part to play. Amanda Basker, director at International Art Consultants, says: “Companies are much more tuned in to the idea of having art around now than they were 20 years ago.” Michael Boitier, founding partner of art consultancy Workplace, agrees, adding that UK offices are slowly taking up the US model, where “art is as important as furniture”. He stresses: “Art in the workplace can make a subtle statement as to what a company is about.” And the big brash collections of the © Eighties have been replaced by subtler works which are now seen as intrinsic to a company’s identity. Mercedes Benz chose a wall-mounted kinetic sculpture to reflect design, engineering and technology for its Finance Division in Milton Keynes. For its London headquarters, precious metal commodity dealer Engelhard Metals opted for glass panels infused with the metals in which they trade.

An art consultancy is a kind of picture library for artists; IAC has around 37 000 original works of art and 20 000 limited edition prints, along with 900 artists on its books who can be commissioned. Art consultancies don’t charge the artist a fee, but take commission on what is sold. And they differ from galleries in that they do not promote a particular name. In general, the artists who do commissions for the workplace are not well known, but could be in the future and are a potential investment for a corporation – and a consultancy. Scouting private views and degree shows to keep its portfolio up to date is essential, says Basker, who interviews approximately 40 candidates a month and takes on around two.

Working closely with architects is key to IAC’s business strategy. If the client can be persuaded that art is an important part of the office image at an early stage, funds can be taken from elsewhere to ensure it is provided for. The IAC motto is the three Bs: business, building and budget. “The earlier you are taken on, the better,” says Basker, who shudders at the number of times she has witnessed fire alarms and light switches take priority over the art. “Art is often the final consideration after the furniture is in place and is the first thing to be slashed from the budget,” says Boitier. “If the air conditioning breaks down, that’s it. No art.”

One solution to the budget problem is for consultancies to rent out prints, which are rotated every six months. Typically, a company might pay up to 30 a week to rent an original print, less for a reproduction. This way clients can cater for varying tastes. Commitment to art varies among clients; National Westminster Bank has its own curator for its huge collection, and, as a large sponsor of the arts, often snoops out work directly at galleries and shows. Meanwhile, the number of galleries setting up consultancy wings for clients is increasing and the Arts Council and the Contemporary Art Society offer consultation for a fee.

In 1985, a scheme was set up as a response to the increased awareness of art by corporate clients. Not restricted to offices, the Art and Work Awards scheme takes place every two years and is open to hospitals, schools and universities. The winner in 1996 was the property and development group Hammerson UK Properties building at Bishopsgate, where sculptor Eilis O’Connell and rug designer Helen Yardley scooped joint first prize for best office artworks.

But not all clients show as much variety and daring as Hammerson; indeed, most are conservative; Picasso’s nudes, crucifixion scenes and George Grotz political satires are not big runners; the last thing anyone wants is an offended executive storming through reception. But this does not mean that the only alternative is a nondescript abstract block print which matches the carpet. “All too often, the client assumes you just need to fill a space. But you can be imaginative about how you do it. And you have to get the balance right between attracting the eye and having no effect whatsoever,” says Boitier, who favours ceramics and textiles over straight prints.

And certain areas are more important than others. Currently, receptions, boardrooms and meeting rooms merit the top-of-the-range work, but who’s to say that the staff restaurant and the corridor to the accounts department need always end up with the reproduction prints?

Closing date for The Art and Work Awards 1998 is 1 March, 1998. All projects must be completed before December 1997. Call 0171-481 1337 for entry details.

Case study

The SmithKline Beecham building at New Frontiers Science Park in Harlow which opened this April was a dream commission for IAC. Working closely with building design practice Amec in the UK and Hillier in the US, IAC jumped aboard a third of the way through the 20-month project. This meant the consultancy had time to make alterations to the architect’s original ideas and commission individual works for the entire interior and garden of the new-build site.

Among these was a 60m glass sculpture by artist Graham Jones which acts as a screen between the reception and the boardroom. IAC also persuaded SmithKline Beecham to have European prints along the central spinal wall which are rotated every six months. Chris Ives, Facilities Manager at SmithKline Beecham Harlow, explains: ‘The choice of art for the building was an opportunity to celebrate the common roots of artistic and scientific aspirations. Staff were asked their expectations and tastes and the collection was chosen with the people who have to live with it in mind.’

So far, the company’s choice has been well received by staff. And IAC has produced a CD-ROM providing background information to the prints on offer, so staff will continue to have a say in what will hang in their corridors.

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