“I want to make sure they’re in a space that inspires,” Laura Alber says, gesturing around the new Williams-Sonoma, Inc. IT building in San Francisco. She’s talking about her colleagues who work in the building, the walls of which have recently been hung with works of art by contemporary artists: Walead Beshty, Shannon Ebner, Tamar Halpern, and others. Laura, who graduated from Penn in 1990, is President and CEO of Williams-Sonoma, Inc., and she is hosting a tour of the new collection for local alumni, ICA staff, and friends.
Before we look at the art, though, she tells a story. Having purchased a building known as the Ice House for the company’s new headquarters—a very pricey piece of real estate— Howard Lester, Laura’s predecessor at Williams-Sonoma, Inc., proceeded to fill the place with mid-century art. Appalled at the expense, Laura questioned his decision. Wouldn’t the money spent on art be better used in other ways?
In response, Mr. Lester had his own question: “How would you like to work in a building in a basement with no windows?”
And so Laura’s mind began to change.
I like this story for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it’s rare for someone to pinpoint an a-ha moment in their lives—a specific occurrence that opened their mind to something new. For another, the story relates to a longstanding conversation I’ve had with myself about where art belongs.
For the most part, art is either in the home, where it is a rich part of the daily life for a very few people, or it’s in a museum in the good company of others of its kind (and available for visits by many strangers) but without any daily domestic intimacy to animate it. Then there are in-between spaces like public buildings and parks: in a City Hall, for example, or on a University Green.
None of these places, however, is where most of us spend most of our waking hours. Rather, we spend them at work: in offices, factories, stores, classrooms, and cubicles—many, many cubicles—with safety notices or family snapshots the only things hanging. One of the things I love about working at ICA is that there is art on the walls even upstairs in the offices. Behind me, in my own cubicle, hangs a poster from a 1968 Christo exhibition, and in front of me over the partition I can see a beautiful print, Sarah McEneaney’s self-portrait of the artist (and ICA board member) in her bathtub. I have never worked anywhere else where this was true, and chances are you don’t work someplace like this either.
But why not? Isn’t the office arguably the place that needs art the most? Isn’t art good for morale, productivity, imagination? Shouldn’t hanging it be a good investment for a business—an investment in the mental well-being of its employees, a kind of health plan for the soul?
At our tour Jimmy Castelucci, a Williams-Sonoma, Inc. associate, tours us through the collection. “The art in this building was inspired by innovation and technology,” he says. He points out the Roland Flexners in the lobby, explaining how they were made by the artist putting India ink and soap in a straw and blowing bubbles that burst against the paper. He shows us the Walead Beshty photographic print made in a process precipitated by what happened to a roll of film going through an x-ray machine shortly after 9/11. He takes us upstairs, past the cubicles and the white boards, past Huddle Room 2A and Conference Room 2B.What do the people who sit in these cubicles and scribble on these white boards think of this art? Does it grow more meaningful to them over time? More invisible? Might the guy at this desk here look right past all of it for months, and then one day—a difficult afternoon, perhaps, tangled in intractable computer code—look up and really see the Cornelia Parker piece of wires spun from bullets? Might it make some difference?
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