The corporate curator

Work got you down? Why not bring some art into your business?

It's the private as public, the public as private. Montelongo inhabits a Twilight Zone between gallerist and traditional curator. "Freelance curator" seems an appropriate title for her, though "hired art gun" or "quality-of-life enhancer" might work. Corporate art-buying is on the rise, but unlike the high-profile artwork purchased by Frito Lay or J.C. Penney as permanent collections for their lobbies (and often mapped out by a veteran museum curator), the art filling the walls and stairwells at Charlie can't be labeled collections, exactly. Charlie doesn't own this eclectic, varied stuff, and Montelongo breaks it up and moves it out to make room for new displays. Nor is this a conventional exhibition; the general public can't just waltz in and peruse the space, and even the "openings" are attended mainly by employees, clients, and press. Sure, some of it is for sale, but Charlie doesn't push to sell it; an interested employee or client has to contact Montelongo to get buying information. Owners Lott and Waldrip buy at least one piece from every group, as appreciation for and a record of what was once there, but Montelongo admits that this is hardly a money-making venture.

Yet artists are happy to contribute work, and at no charge. Not only do the employees enjoy the hell out of it, but dozens of clients working in creative industries also see it--far outnumbering those who would see it in most galleries. So from an artist's perspective, why not haul it out of storage or from the back of the studio and give it some spotlight? Many artists loan their works to friends to display in their homes between gallery shows, happy that their work has an ongoing audience. They know the Charlie office provides the same kind of low-key, high-potential sabbatical. It may not sell, but at least it's out there.

Granted, it may take a work environment as progressive as CharlieUniformTango to pull this off. There, pastries and gourmet coffee are served buffet-style each morning; all the furniture is future-sleek; employees kick back on the winding outdoor veranda circling the place; jeans and street shoes are the norm. Owners Lott and Waldrip can afford to up the creative-juice ante by hiring their own curator. But my guess is that this concept could be applied to many workplaces. As corporate psychologists and sociologists and efficiency experts continue to extol the virtue (read: productivity) of high employee morale, which comes by workers believing that the guys at the top actually care about them, the idea of art in the office makes perfect sense: "Hey, the boss just bought us a Warhol!"

When did art--and by that, I mean the whole visual shebang--leave our culture's everyday existence and enter the more exclusive realm of museums and galleries? For centuries in both east and west, people enjoyed artwork everywhere they went: church, the town square, civic centers, public parks, private gardens. Somehow this country has, aside from its scant war memorials and occasional stabs at public works, made art an elitist and specialized microcosm of interest. And that's the shame of it. Because regardless of your appreciation, the mere presence of artwork transforms a place from the mundane and everyday to an environment where expression and beauty and matters of the heart are welcome.

CharlieUniformTango may just be the most stimulating and healthy workplace in town. And it ain't the leather couch that makes it that way. It's that teeny polar bear behind the fence, and that Styrofoam igloo. Just ask the hired gun who put them there in the first place.

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