Art from Alabama Transforms Workplaces

Corporate art enhances the visual environment, providing businesses with a more sophisticated ambience and enhancing their brand. Most frequently considered a décor item, corporate art sometimes also can be an investment for the long term as the works of some artists grow in value.

The following organizations are three Alabama leaders in the acquisition, display and promotion of corporate art. Each either purchases works only by artists with an Alabama connection or encourages a state connection.

“Dancers At Rest, ” by Jeanne Sauls, in the RSA Headquarters

The Retirement Systems of Alabama, the administrator of the pension fund for employees of the state, has been buying corporate art for its office buildings, which are part of its investment portfolio, for the past 20 years. Montgomery-based RSA currently has 15 office buildings across the state, including the RSA Tower in Mobile, Alabama’s tallest building.

All corporate art purchased by RSA has been produced by artists with an Alabama connection. Each artist must currently or formerly have lived in the state.

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“Alabama has some great artists, and we want to put the spotlight on talent here in the state, ” says Beth Adams, RSA’s director of interior design.

Art is acquired by RSA as part of the décor of its office buildings as they are planned and built.

Corporate Art Source in Montgomery assists RSA’s art committee in choosing from available works by Alabama artists for new buildings coming online. Artists often choose their frames and include them as part of the work. When a piece needs framing, however, Corporate Art Source assists the RSA art committee in choosing a frame to best go with the art.

Adams estimates that more than 100 pieces of art by Alabama artists have been acquired by RSA over the years. “We don’t buy art every year, just when it’s needed, ” Adams says.

Art works located in each RSA office building are rotated within the building, usually every year or so, to provide greater visual variety for those who frequent the office buildings.

“Rotating the art can really freshen the look of an interior, ” Adams says.

RSA’s resort properties, including those on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, also are graced by the work of Alabama artists, with works in those properties offered for sale. The consignment program is coordinated by internationally acclaimed artist Nall, who grew up in Troy and now has a studio in Fairhope.

“The resort art program helps promote talent in the state and offers guests a great opportunity to view and buy art by Alabama artists, ” Adams says.

Alabama artists have the opportunity each year to have their original, two-dimensional works in oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastels, pen and ink or mixed media become part of Birmingham-based Energen Corp.’s substantial corporate art collection “The Wonders of Alabama Art.”

The oil and gas exploration and production company has been hosting annual art contests for Alabama artists for the past 14 years. “We have a pretty rich contest history after all these years. The contest continues to grow in popularity with more entries every year, ” says Sherri Goodman, an Energen spokeswoman.

While the contest attracted only 29 entries when it began in 2000, this year it drew 482 entries from 258 Alabama artists. The contest is open to artists 18 years of age and older who live or have lived in Alabama. Contest winners are awarded significant cash prizes for their art, which becomes part of the Energen permanent collection. Energen also purchases additional finalist art each year.

All finalist works, 200 pieces this year, are shown in an exhibit at Energen Plaza in downtown Birmingham following the contest, and artists are able to sell their works to exhibition attendees. This year a quarter of the art in the exhibit sold. Art prices set by the artists ranged from $150 to $8, 000 per work, for a total of $375, 000 represented.

“One of the biggest draws of the contest is that the artists know they have a good chance of selling their art, ” Goodman says.

This past March, the Energen Grand Prize Award of $7, 500 was awarded to Dirk Walker, for his work “Life on Highland Avenue.”

Four $3, 000 category prizes were awarded. Winners were Kelley Alford, for her landscape “Swimmin’ Hole;” Jim Denney, for his wildlife work “Red-tailed Hawk;” John Hyche, for the non-representational “Measure Up, ” and Patty Ringland, for “Rainy Night Lights in Five Points South, ” which was the Energen employee choice winner. Four other artists received honorable mention awards of $250 each.

After paying prize money, Energen donates the excess entry fees to a different Alabama charity each year, adding a corporate donation to sweeten the gift. The first year’s recipient was the Cahaba River Keepers, and this year it was Camp Smile-A-Mile. “The contest is such a positive for everyone involved, ” Goodman says.

Energen benefits from goodwill created by the contest, as well as having the opportunity to collect some of the work of the state’s best artists for the enjoyment of its staff and visitors. Energen employees appreciate the growing collection, which is prominently displayed at the company’s downtown headquarters, Goodman says.

“Art transforms the workplace, ” she says. “It’s a joy to be able to view fine art every day, and there’s such a variety of work presented that everyone is going to see pieces that appeal to them.”

A collective of banks — BB&T, BBVA Compass, Regions, Renasant, River Bank & Trust, ServisFirst and Trustmark — has agreed to commission individual pieces of public art for an Urban Art Trail promoted by the city of Montgomery. The pieces will fill in existing pieces in the cityscape, some emulating the mosaic wall made by Tara Cady Sartorius at Montgomery Riverfront Park (above), and one seriously considering a sculpture of the riverboat Harriott II (below), and others still pondering.

Photos by David Bundy

Acquiring, displaying and promoting corporate art sometimes is a cooperative effort. The city of Montgomery recently has announced plans to create a downtown art trail. The capital city is kicking off its Urban Art Trail project by collaborating with seven area banks, each of which will purchase and install a piece of outdoor art at their location along the trail. The seven participating banks are BB&T, BBVA Compass, Regions, Renasant, River Bank & Trust, ServisFirst and Trustmark.

The program is being coordinated by the city’s development department, which promotes economic development throughout Montgomery. Partnering on the project is the Montgomery Area Business Committee for the Arts, which is helping the banks find and acquire their art pieces. The city plans to enlist, over time, other institutions to participate in the trail.

Already Montgomery has some fine examples of art downtown that could become part of the trail, but the new additions will create an actual urban art district. “We looked at the corporate demographics downtown, and the banks were the logical first choice for creating a trail, ” says Melanie Golson, outreach coordinator for the city’s development department.

Urban art has long been popular in major metropolitan areas, from New York to Miami to Los Angeles, but now is being used more often to enhance smaller cities. The idea for the Montgomery art trail was in part inspired by the success of urban art programs in such small Southern cities as Chattanooga, Tenn. and Greenville, S.C. Those cities have experienced an economic stimulus, as well as improvement in quality of life for their residents, thanks in part to their popular art trails.

“The arts have always been valued in Montgomery, so having an art trail here is just a natural fit, ” Golson says.

Popular urban art in cities across the country and the world runs the gamut from two-dimensional murals and mosaics to three-dimensional sculptures in metal, brick, wood or fiberglass. “Urban art ranges in tone from the serious to the whimsical, but in general enhances the public’s experience and enjoyment of a city, ” she says.

“Having an abundance of public art really makes a cityscape far more engaging.”

Each Montgomery bank participating in the program has been encouraged to involve its employees in the search for the right piece of outdoor art for its downtown location. Using local or regional talent also is being encouraged. “One teller, for example, is a weekend sculptor and is very interested in being considered, ” Golson says.

Taking advantage of talent close to home could be a good business, as well. “We don’t want the banks to feel they must spend large amounts of money to find a great piece to display, ” Golson says.

The trail will be promoted on the city of Montgomery’s website, and trail maps will be made available to the public. “We’re still in the planning phase, but we’re hoping to have the first piece installed by next spring, ” Golson says.

Text by Kathy Hagood

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