Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Who would think the surroundings of an insurance or investment office could startle and amaze? Or that a hospital’s appearance could offer joy and hope? In San Antonio, curated art is becoming part of corporate culture one office and conference room at a time.
The Argo Group, Joeris General Contractors, health-related businesses, and others have invested in art because their CEOs want to share their personal passions with employees and clients. Their choices have ended up benefiting their businesses in unexpected ways.
Incorporating art into local offices made a modern-era debut when the Matthews & Branscomb law firm, which joined Dykema Cox Smith in 2004, designed its office space to showcase local art in 1983. The firm made a bold statement by placing a sculpture by Sir Henry Moore in front of its office building at East Commerce and South St. Mary’s streets. Today, the Phipps law firm, whose building on the San Antonio River projects an industrial vibe on the Museum Reach, is filled with dynamic art that reaches to the rooftop Paramour bar.
As one business owner noted, employees spend more time in the office than at home. It turns out that art in the office also breaks ice with clients and helps in recruiting. Each collection incites excitement as elevator or entryway open to the unexpected.
To one side of the 13th-floor reception area at the Argo Group’s office in downtown’s IBC Centre, sparkling beads twisted on wire suspend into an atrium below, leading visitors to marvel at the incongruity of arresting art hovering above desk cubicles. Woodcut prints, photographs, digital images, pen and ink drawings, and even art furniture serve as a “good stimulant” for employees and clients alike, said Mark E. Watson III, the company’s CEO and chief art lover.
“I think it reflects who we are, which is a thoughtful company as opposed to another run-of-the-mill, stodgy company,” he told the Rivard Report by telephone from Argo’s Bermuda office. The company provides high-risk insurance and has offices in London, Bermuda, Brazil, and New York, among others.
Displayed throughout the company’s four floors, the collection includes a series of photos of the King Ranch by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide; 10 woodcuts by local artist Nate Cassie; a full series of grocery bag digital photos by the late Chuck Ramirez; etched metal chairs by sculptor George Schroeder; photos by Dan Borris, George O. Jackson, and the late Rick Hunter; and works by painters Ana Fernandez, James Cobb, and many others.
While clients say they are comfortable in Argo’s offices, Watson is particularly thrilled when they are inspired enough to contact an artist and purchase their own works. As art sources, he favors Artpace and Blue Star Contemporary, and also relies on Patricia Ruiz-Healy, owner of the gallery in Olmos Park bearing her name.
When Group 42, an energy-focused holding company, moved its offices to the Pearl, President and CEO Paul Bell saw the new space as a place to “showcase local artistic talent as an investment in a culture of creative thinking.” The offices include artwork by local and international artists, including Rudy Choperena, Ansen Seale, Larry Graeber, Martha Durke, Ben Mata, and the late Reginald Rowe. Even the furniture is art. To furnish a three-sided meeting room, Harold Wood designed a triangular conference table using 400-year-old reclaimed wood handcrafted without nails or glue by cabinetmaker John O’Brien.
“We work with a lot of people internationally, and the art gives a nice talking point about our progressive culture and support of local artists,” Bell said. “Also, it’s a very calming and clean space, and employees appreciate that.”
San Antonio-based art curator Allison Hays Lane consulted with Bell and his wife, Audrey Mangold on the collection, making purchases in Basel, Switzerland, New York, Dubai, Berlin, and London. They also agreed on acquiring works on paper from national presses “to give a mixed-media feel to the art program,” Lane said.
“I like working with clients like Paul and Audrey who have an excellent art compass, but also enjoy pursuing new avenues and are willing to take a chance,” Lane said.
Employees at Phipps LLC, encompassing two specialty law firms, seem to be having fun. Maybe it’s the environment: the landmark modern Phipps building, overlooking the River on the Museum Reach, pops with sassy art. Superheroes prevail on one floor, including two portraits of Batman, one eating a donut and one brushing his teeth. A work by international graffiti superstar Banksy showing a street person holding a sign reading “Keep your coins. I WANT CHANGE,” hangs behind a coffee maker. On each of the building’s four floors, a mural by local graffiti artists Los Otros surrounds the elevator, including a rendering of owner Martin Phipps’ children.
“Art and law are my passions,” Phipps told the Rivard Report. “It seems like they are strange bedfellows, but not to me. Art and law, in theory, both search for the truth. Looking into the human soul to discover and reveal our inner selves that many times, we do not want to reveal. Art and law are actually kindred spirits.”
Phipps chooses the artworks himself and encourages lawyers to hang personal pieces in their offices. Most of the works are by artists outside of San Antonio, but Phipps’ desk was hand-hewn by local craftsman John Brackenridge, as were employee work tables. A wood sculpture titled The Inevitable Invention of Mythology is by local artist Danville Chadbourne. Art extends even to stairway landings, reflecting Phipps’ love of movies. One shows “Cat” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s clawing Holly’s face. One is a wrinkled, elderly “Tweety Pie.”
In the fourth floor Paramour, a coffee shop and cocktail lounge (depending on the hour), art on the walls seems almost superfluous amid brightly colored furniture loaded with arty pillows, inside and on the sizable balcony. It serves as an inspiring backdrop for brainstorming.
“To be successful at law, you must be creative,” Phipps continued. “Most lawyers are not creative, relying on decisions made in the past. But the great social changes to our society have come through brilliant but creative arguments to protect our individual freedoms.”
At the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center, any anxiety blood donors feel may evaporate when they enter the lobby and find themselves amid hundreds of shiny origami shapes dangling from the high ceiling like rain, which is the title of the mobile. San Antonio artist Anita Valencia folded hundreds of crushed beer and soda cans to create a dazzling effect.
On another wall, a massive two-dimensional work called Shrine depicts hazy columns and arches. As the drawing’s title implies, these architectural features belong to the Alamo; deceased architect Henry Rayburn drew the image on recycled drawing boards. Along with Rain’s use of recycled materials, the center’s artwork reinforces the facility’s mission.
The idea of filling the original corporate headquarters off of IH-10 and First Park ten Boulevard, completed in 1994, and two later wings in 2002 and 2008, began when Tim Blonkvist, Overland Partners’ lead architect for the project, told the Blood & Tissue Center’s board he had designed the limestone building with art in mind.
Once the art was installed in donation rooms, offices, hallways, and elsewhere, not everyone was thrilled. After an employee tried to pry off a plywood frame from Graeber’s painting Sky, thinking it was part of its crate, employees were invited to a seminar to talk and learn about art. Don Bacigalupi, then the San Antonio Museum of Art’s contemporary curator of art, explained that strong negative feelings about a work are a good place to start learning more about art and ourselves.
At Joeris General Contractors, employee response to the company’s works of art also has been mixed.
“Art is highly personal and, as such, evokes responses from enthusiasm to jokes or questions like, ‘What is that supposed to be?,’” CEO Gary Joeris told the Rivard Report. “However, the consensus is an appreciation of our art and the overall feel it provides our office environment.”
In addition to collecting art with the help of local gallery Art Incorporated, the company has commissioned artworks “to honor iconic structures and architecture, since we are in the construction business,” Joeris said.
Most of the commissions have been given to clients as gifts, he added.
“Several clients have multiple pieces on display in their offices, extending the reach of the art and the artists,” Joeris said.
As other corporate collectors observed, the impetus for collecting art is personal. That it makes the company more interesting to clients and other visitors is a bonus.
“It’s a great conversation starter and a wonderful story about how our relationships with artists connect us to architecture, construction, and our hometown,” Joeris said.
It’s hard to feel anything but joy as you approach University Health System’s Sky Tower or Robert B. Green Campus. Both exude life and elation, humanity and hope.
“When you go to a hospital, you don’t want to be there unless you’re having a baby,” said Mark Webb, CEO of University Children’s Health and director of the hospital system’s building program. “Part of the idea in the way we designed the spaces, the colors, the art, was to create something different, a place of healing, so when you walked through your anxiety kind of lowers. You can see that in people’s faces, that they feel a sense of calm.”
The Robert B. Green Campus, which opened in 2013, contains more than 300 works by 75 artists. Its signature work, visible from downtown, is Bill Fitzgibbons’ San Antonio Colorline computerized LED lights that wrap around the top of the building and south-facing facade. Art from lobby to exam room aims to blow the minds – and hopefully the fear – of incoming patients, while exposing them to a caliber of art they may not have experienced otherwise.
University Health’s Sky Tower hospital in the South Texas Medical Center integrates 1,200 artworks by more than 275 artists from eight countries into its waiting rooms, nurses stations, walkways, patient rooms, rooftop garden, and even driveway and parking lots. The patient-drop off zone feels like the porte cochère of a Vegas hotel, though many people coming and going are in scrubs. Thousands of bluebonnets covering a sandstone wall at the drop-off and colorful suspended sculptures in the lobby intend to make hearts heal and swell. The bluebonnets were cast by artist Riley Robinson in steel and powder-coated in blue and green. They bloom continuously, no matter the season.
“There’s some science between art and healing, and the impact that colors, textures, and the way things look have on the way people go through the healing process,” Webb said.