Appreciating Art?: Companies Adorning their Walls with Images and the Questions They Raise

                                                                                                                                                                       By D. Amari Jackson
Photo by PICHA Stock

 

Few doubt the power of art. It can lift spirits or set a tone, spark nostalgia or inspire a movement. Art can brighten a mood, prompt a vivid memory or an immense sadness.

That acknowledged, what spaces are most appropriate for bringing such emotions about? Museums? Galleries? Private collections in the comfort of your own home? How about where you work?

“The people who go to art shows, exhibitions, and museum shows are a very small group of people,” points out Dr. Michael Butler, a longtime collector and the owner of Griots' Art Gallery in Miami. Though Butler’s gallery is not a commercial enterprise, his collection of close to 100 pieces adorns the medical clinic and business spaces within the surrounding Center for Haitian Studies.

“What I would like to achieve is getting artwork by African-American artists on the walls of businesses that people frequent, like barbershops, beauty salons, restaurants, and those kind of establishments where the foot traffic is high,” promotes Butler, noting “the percentage of people who go to restaurants is much higher than the percentage of people that go to art museums.”

“I think it’s extremely important that when people walk into your office space, they understand the culture,” offers Paul Robinson, founding member and partner with Sepia Transformation Partners, an affordable housing development company focused on healthy community transformation. “A gentleman, a long time ago, told me this,” recalls Robinson. “He said, ‘Paul, when you wear a business suit, that’s your first conversation with someone. And from there, it just opens up to other things.’ And it’s the same thing with art.”

Courtesy of Griots Gallery - Miami, FL

“So when somebody comes into your office space, you want them to feel the culture of your company and that it will open up that conversation so that conversation can develop and grow,” stresses Robinson. “One of the things we are doing is making sure that all the art we purchase for this space is going to have a theme that deals with either housing, with health and wellness, or with neighborhood transformation and revitalization.”

Butler would agree that art sets the tone for both workers and clients. “It’s an act of discovery on both ends,” he says, clarifying that art is “something that people are not necessarily exposed to in their personal lives. But they see it and they say, ‘Oh, this is interesting’ or ‘Oh, this is what’s going on.”

Butler takes it one step further. “I would say that people have a narrow conception of what the key components of African-American art look like. What we do is broaden that concept out there by correcting the impression that Black art has to have recognizable Black content.”

With a collection that prioritizes landscapes from a variety of African-American artists like Sam Gilliam and Lou Stovall, Butler is clear about his distaste for what he considers the limiting of Black art. “We place a burden on the African-American artists like, ‘Oh, you need to represent Black people and you need to have a narrative,’ he laments, noting that “if you are so inclined, you should do so.”

“But, no, you need to be an artist,” insists Butler. “If you want to paint pictures of birds, if you want to paint pictures of scenery and landscape, if you want to depict abstract images, you can do all of that because you engage the full repertoire of artistic production. And that’s what we should be able to do as artists.”

Whatever type of art one hangs on a wall, there are a myriad of reasons why companies do so. Some decorate their spaces with imagery because they recognize the impact art can have on lifting the spirits and well-being of their workers. Art can promote a more comfortable, enjoyable, and productive workspace and set a team environment where employees actually like coming to work. It can transform a sterile commercial setting into a comfortable, colorful, or even inspirational space for working.

Courtesy of Griots Gallery - Miami, FL

“We oftentimes have conversations about the pieces on the wall during down moments or when people find themselves having moments of reflection,” says Mignon Smith, owner of Rhodes Casual Dining in LaGrange, Georgia. The casual eatery founded by her father—Rhodes is Smith’s maiden name—bears the work of African artists and a soon-to-be mounted print from Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. "Our employees," she reports, “usually find themselves spending a lot more time looking at art than one normally would. I think it’s an average of 30 seconds that most people spend looking at a piece of art and, for our employees, they are in front of these images all the time.”

Mignon Smith with father, David Rhodes

For clients entering a commercial space, art can convey a sense of value, longevity, culture, cosmopolitanism, and even trust. An art collection is not only worth money, it commonly points to an established enterprise that has made money over time, particularly art depicting historical imagery. Combine this perceived value and historicity with the worldliness and cultural implications of the artistic field and it can convey a sense of trust to a commercial clientele, an impression that the business in question is thriving, well-established, wholly above board, and deserving of your hard-earned money.

And what about image? Or company identity?

Art can represent how a business wants to be seen by its clientele, a significant step in converting viewers into customers. Considering that relentless Western maxim, “image is everything,” companies can certainly rack up a substantial amount of ‘cool points’ by adorning their walls with contemporary or trendy imagery that lets their visitors know they are in tune with modern trends, styles, or cultural developments. Given the racial tumult of recent years, art can also signify that a company is not only in tune with current developments but actively promoting and visualizing a more progressive, inclusive future.

courtesy of Griots Gallery Miami FL

Courtesy of Griots Gallery - Miami, FL

“We use art basically to tell the story of the Black experience,” acknowledges Smith. “There are not a lot of visible examples of Black excellence in this community and we thought the best way to share that experience with the community is through art. It’s also an art-deprived community as it relates to Black art,” points out Smith, and “we wanted to expose people to a different form of creativity that’s outside of music, fashion, or things that people tend to gravitate towards in this community.”  

In America, the intersection of private commercial enterprise and art has a popular past. Some point to the major corporate collections of the 1950s by business magnates like David Rockefeller, who began the prominent art collection of Chase Manhattan Bank. While this practice was initially considered wasteful or superficial, just fast forward to the 1990s when half of all Fortune 500 companies were collecting art. But this was not necessarily due to the aforementioned incentives of altruism or marketability; rather, this was because what was once considered wasteful was proven to be lucrative for those companies.

Companies can loan their art collections to public institutions for exhibitions and increased branding and, in doing so, potentially increase the appraised value of their art. Further, these companies can you use their expanding art collections as a tax write-off given that purchasing expensive pieces can significantly lessen their tax burdens.

For business owners like Smith, putting art on the walls of an eatery that serves a majority African-American community has little to do with money.

“At first it didn’t really resonate with me, the importance of people walking into spaces where they’re seeing themselves reflected not just in the space, in human form, but also on the walls,” admits Smith. “When we think about what it means to change a community one meal at a time, we have to also think about doing that one piece of art at a time, one interaction at a time, and one conversation at a time. So this place that we created is really what we’re calling a ‘cultural hub’ to be able to have the intersectionality of all the elements that make our culture beautiful and wonderful in its own way, but then exposing people, at the same time, to elements of our culture that we may not necessarily give a lot of attention to because of other distractors.”

One sizable and recent distractor was the pandemic. “Covid was a period where people had a lot of time to spend with themselves and there was a lot of personal awareness,” says Smith, noting that “as people now are coming back into our space, I’ve found that there’s been a lot of growth, not just the personal development that’s happened by way of Covid, but also the professional development and the artistic development. There’s just so much that people are appreciating in a very different way because Covid revealed so much to us at a time when it was unexpected.”

Butler hopes such appreciation will extend to the many, unsung Black artists from the past that he intentionally places on the walls of his space and the numerous businesses surrounding him.

“I don’t really focus on the hot and upcoming artists,” acknowledges Butler, before promoting the likes of Lois Mailou Jones, Greg Ridley, Phil Hampton, Beauford and Joseph Delaney. “I mean, those are not the names that roll off the tip of the tongue for the current art world.” Consistently, the Miami collector ensures the works of such unheralded artists grace the walls of the adjacent commercial spaces. “Those are the people that are still worthy of our attention. So I try to make sure that I focus on people that have done very skillful and productive work over time, the ones people are stepping over.”

That acknowledged, Butler’s true appreciation for art moves beyond any such walls, commercial or otherwise.  

“You know, all art collecting is not done consciously,” offers Butler. “There’s always kind of an unconscious stirring that accompanies aspects of the collection process.”

“The main thing is that I would like be open to serendipity,” he adds, “to leave myself open to being surprised.”

 

AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.

  

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