For the love of workplace art, where have all the walls gone?

A survey exploring art in the workplace (‘Making Art Work in the Workplace’) conducted by the British Council for Offices (BCO) found that almost 88 percent of respondents felt that “art is more relevant in the workplace than ever before”. Yet, with the arrival of the generic modern office, full of open plan space and glass partitions, we frequently find ourselves rather short of walls on which to hang any workplace art in the first place. “There are no bloody walls left’ and those that are left are glass,” protests Jack Pringle of architects Perkins+Will, pointing to the fact that traditional hanging space is on the decline.

“It’s harder to accommodate art in a modern building because there are fewer offices and white walls,” says Friedhelm Hütte, head of art at Deutsche Bank, who currently own 57,000 works and counting.

With just shy of 94 percent of people saying that art makes the workplace feel more welcoming and many companies making the link between art and employee productivity, surely it deserves to be put on the table at the design phase, not tacked on as an afterthought. Often this issue simply comes down to art not being considered from the outset. Pringle continues, “Where art is important or will be important, it has to be talked about right up front and then it’s not an accident whether it’s incorporated in the right way. If the workplace is to overcome the major challenge that the contemporary office poses to art, companies need to be prepared to “integrate art at the earliest opportunity” and “to adopt a modular, flexible art strategy;”


Relevance is King

Considering art early not only allows for the obvious pre-thinking of locations of pieces, it is also an opportunity to think about what art means to the company and its purpose once on display. “The benefit of art in the workplace is to be able to communicate the values of a firm. If it’s just lipstick on a gorilla, it’s a sham” says Pringle and of course, he’s right.

Art says something about a company and not simply from an aesthetic perspective. The strategy itself is crucial to integrating art into the values of a business. Is the company investing in todays’ contemporary stars or is it taking a grass roots approach championing young artists? The rationale counts for as much, if not more than art itself. In a world that demands bang for buck, it makes perfect sense to ensure that workplace art is contributing to business objectives and relevant to the company and its people. In fact there is evidence from workplace researchers IDR to suggest that when employees are given an element of control in customising their workplace, including choosing the art, productivity and wellbeing can be enhanced by as much as 30 percent.

“Art has to be part of business strategy rather than a one-off tactic” says Mark Catchlove, director at Herman Miller and working environment expert. “Given that 80 percent of business cost is people… companies should place more focus on maximising the output of its key asset- staff, if you can increase productivity by even 2 percent or 3 percent, it becomes worth it.”


Art for All

It’s unsurprising to discover that it’s usually managers on decision-making duty when it comes to art. 81 percent of the BCO survey respondents said that art was chosen by senior staff, leaving no room for the positive impact of employee input when it comes to their working environment. That said, getting consensus on a piece of art isn’t always straight forward which could explain the general leaning toward a dictatorial approach. According to the survey, the tendency when it comes to art is to focus on public and client spaces in the workplace. “It is key is to display art across the building,” it surmises. Playing favourites on the subject of client versus employee spaces limits scope when it comes to staff retention, productivity and wellbeing.

With flexible working so widely practiced, the office is competing with an array of working places from the back garden to the local caff. “We want to encourage people to be here,” explains Andy Moseley, UK head of workplace at KPMG, “art is one of the subtle strategies we use for doing that.”

The agile workforce now mature, office space is becoming condensed. However, like a good stock, reduction can enhance the strength and flavour of a space. Companies have an opportunity to make the most of the square feet they do have by thinking ahead and proactively including art friendly spaces.

A proverb that urges us to build walls there is not. Counter to cultural dogma that dictates walls are for knocking down, in the case of art you’ll find that they can be both practical and powerful in uniting all for the love of art. Bring back the wall!

Image: Ken Fiery’s painting of the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost


Mending Wall

By Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”