Thanks to our neighbor, Howell Malham, Co-Founder and Director of the incredible think tank, Insight Labs, for sharing this article – and his professional insight – into the research behind art and its ability to impact the workplace.
GIVE ART GLOBAL IMPACT
as posted JANUARY 16, 2012 by Insight Labs
Andrew Benedict Nelson Insight Labs
Joe Shields, Johnson & Johnson
Joe Shields, an executive who works on new digital product development at Johnson and Johnson’s Life Scan, talked with us about how giving employees a say in the art above their desk could enrich a company’s culture.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You joined us for a Lab with the West Collection, a contemporary art collection housed at a financial services company outside of Philly. What do you feel was the main idea or takeaway from the Lab?
Joe Shields: From my perspective the main takeaway is that the West Collection could be a unique tool to help manage employee performance and retention.
At first blush, it just looks like a very good contemporary art collection, but what the curators and art buyers have done over the years is create a particular culture and environment at SEI where it is housed. It may be invisible to the people who work there, but from an outside perspective it was a really unusual place and had a very unusual style for an investment house.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So I’d agree that the main takeaway for most people was a different way of thinking about how art could be put to use within a corporation. But that wasn’t necessarily we thought we were going to address in the Lab. How do you understand the initial question the West Collection was hoping to address, and how do you think this idea answered or didn’t answer it?
Joe Shields: A lot of the pre-work we did was looking at articles about things like Burning Man and other experiential forms of art. Certainly we were all brought up to believe that art was a Rembrandt or some other painting on a wall. But art is not just meant to decorate walls. Its original intent, way back to the cavemen, was to inspire or to convey a certain point of view.
What we tried to do early in the Lab was to really understand the function of the West Collection’s art, as opposed to its artistic style or quality, or the things people form the art world normally talk about. It seemed that within SEI this art was really being used as a tool. They may not have initially thought of it as a business tool. But as we went into the Hot Hall and the Shark Tank, it was clear that art was a differentiating factor in their work environment in terms of recruiting, retention, employee dynamics, and the way they relate to customers.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: To me, this Lab felt like “The Wizard of Oz.” We thought we were going to design some new, strange institution that could replace the museum. But it seemed like the participants concluded that the most valuable asset the West Collection had was already right there at SEI. Do you agree? If so, why do you think that happened?
Joe Shields: It did seem rather strange that the ruby slippers were on our feet the whole time.
The reason I think we landed where we did is that the West Collection has a strong reason to believe that art itself is transformative to a workplace. They have evidence – they may not have documented it in a clinical way – but I think they have evidence from 15 years of doing this that they have improved the company culture, that it has improved relations with customers, and that it has probably improved their relationship with the community. Those are all things many businesses are struggling with.
We often talk about using art in education or with autistic children to produce a certain response. Well, this is like art therapy for grown-ups in the workplace.
Art is messy. But the way people create and develop art is also a lot like how we create business value.
For a lot of what we see in museums and galleries, there is a self-selection bias. People who like art hang out with other people who like art. At the workplace, people have been brought together for a different purpose. It’s not all the same type of people and they won’t all like the same type of art. These people are there to be accountants or planners or engineers or investors, things like that. They may not be fans of art at all. So I think it provides a more realistic test of the value of the art – can it work on the “unenlightened”?
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: How would you explain the culture that West Collection has created at SEI up to this point? What are its salient features?
Joe Shields: First, we kind of made the leap to suppose that the more open-minded or more innovative employee would be drawn to a company that had the guts and the wherewithal to present that kind of collection in the workplace. I could imagine that if you were working there eight or ten hours a day that the art would really sink in.
The art has also encouraged discourse among the employees. A lot of businesses talk about transparency and tough conversations. Focusing on art and not on people’s personalties could be a way to diffuse conflict in the workplace. That’s not proven, but it’s a good hypothesis.
Thirdly, there are the relationships between SEI and the external world, from community leaders to customers, who see that it is a special kind of company. In a world of managing risk, the company has taken risk to another level in its physical space where the employees work. It is a memorable experience that clients want to return to see.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: One of the reasons the Lab participants seemed drawn to the way the West Collection has displayed the art at SEI is because it was felt that they had created a culture of ownership around it. What role do you think the quality of ownership plays there?
Joe Shields: Contrast what is happening with the West Collection at SEI with a public installation. There’s no ownership there. Usually when you put a piece out into the world, it’s still actually owned by whoever owns it, whether it’s the civic body or whether they’re leasing it from another person or organization. So it’s more of a curiosity – people walk by it, but I don’t think they would actively go in and clean it up or provide security for it.
The workplace is a different environment. It has specific rules, so people are probably more predisposed to be nice to art that they don’t agree with. But what the West Collection has done at SEI is to extend this “ownership” approach and see what happens. People dig in. They really have to understand and analyze their thoughts or feelings about why a work may be disturbing to them or why they really love it.
In addition to the feeling of individual ownership, they have a kind of partner or team ownership. That enhances the culture. It raises the awareness that your workspace is more than four white walls. It can be a place that inspires ideas and sparks controversy. You can represent who the team is and what they’re all about based on the art they select, in a similar way to how a private collection or gallery may be an external representation of who someone thinks they are.
They started out in a way that was very experimental. They were willing to try new things. And I think they stumbled upon a pretty big idea, which is that if you expose people in the workplace to ideas that they may not necessarily agree with, some interesting things happen. They may become polarized, but then a dialogue is created about the art, and hopefully that kind of dialogue will spill over into their work. A painting or an installation may not directly inspire an investment broker to do a better job, but if he or she is now more open-minded toward their co-workers, it could really change the game.
And that is probably more possible in the workplace than in any other environment. There are a lot of codes and policies in effect that already make workplaces safe places to have disagreements. It’s a safe place to have controversy where it also won’t get out of hand. Because of the safety net provided by the HR department, you could assume you would have a serious disagreement about a piece of art without fear of losing your job or someone punching you in the mouth. It’s a lab where there are certain sacrosanct rules – sexual harassment laws and things like that – but with enough flexibility that you could also try a lot of new things.
With or without art, many companies are now trying to promote an environment where people know it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay to think big thoughts.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Sure – lots of companies are talking about how to make their employees more entrepreneurial. And a key part of being entrepreneurial is the ability to learn from your mistakes. Well, I think you could find dozens of artists and authors and filmmakers who would tell you that their work is just a series of interesting failures. It seems like that ethos would be a stimulating thing to have around.
Joe Shields: Art is messy. But the way people create and develop art is also a lot like how we create business value. We go to business school, we get MBAs, and that environment makes us think that everything is very regimented and systematic. But when you actually roll up your sleeves and get to work, it’s often messy. It’s sometimes random. It’s sometimes ego-based. There are a lot of parallels with the world of art and the idea of making mistakes and learning from them, as well as learning from the mistakes of others.
There are many people who look at a work of contemporary art and say, “I hate this. This is crap.” But at least they tried something. Look at the artist who made tires into sharks at the West Collection. Someone could look at that and say, “This was their way of communicating a message about the state of the oceans. It doesn’t work for me, but it allows me to think a little differently about my work.” It’s encouraging risk-taking and open dialogue.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s interesting that for most of us, our default question about experiencing art is, “Do I like it or not?” Sometimes there’s somebody like Andy Warhol where a large number of people say, “I get what he was doing, but I don’t necessarily like the work.” But I don’t think that happens all that often right now. If we don’t like it, we pretty much ignore it
You could enlist an army of middle managers to appreciate art, improving their ability to be open-minded.
I think you’re right, though, that something different can happen in the workplace. When you’re in a space where you are sharing your opinion about art with people who may disagree with you, you have to come to this compromise or understanding with the art around you. I don’t think most museums or galleries actually challenge you in that way. If you don’t like the art there, you move on – or just stay home.
Joe Shields: That’s absolutely right. But at work, people are a captive audience. That’s another distinctive feature of the West Collection at SEI – people are living with art. When we took the tour, I didn’t feel like we were seeing art in a workplace. I felt like there were people working in an art gallery, because of the uniqueness of the space and the way things were curated.
We have an odd sort of culture now where through TV shows and Facebook and things like that, people are voting all the time. “I like or I don’t like, I like or I don’t like.” They are not really critically evaluating things. But there should be artists who you don’t really like but whose work you appreciate. You might be disgusted by a director’s personal life, but you can see that they can still make a heck of a film.
The workplace is not black and white most of the time, even in an investment house. What artists are usually struggling with is ambiguity. They are trying to make sense of the world. The parallels with business are really very clear. There is a lot of ambiguity in the global economy too. There are certain tools artists use to make sense of that world and there are certain tools businesses use to make sense of that world. What happens in the workplace isn’t always a creative process, but it mirrors it in a lot of respects.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I agree with all of the attributes of the workplace you’re describing. But there were a few other settings we explored during the Lab where the right kind of ownership might occur. For example, what did you make of implementing something like the West Collection’s curatorial practices in public schools?
Joe Shields: I don’t have a huge background in education or the public art scene, but I don’t know if the model would work in schools as well as it would in the workplace. In schools, there is a continuity of goals, but there is also a fair amount of turnover. Also, even though the kids are in the school eight to ten hours a day, they are moving from room to room, so there isn’t the same ownership of place they have at SEI.
A lot of art in schools has been about how we make kids more creative, rather than how we get them to be critical thinkers or how we get them to appreciate someone else’s work. I think there would have to be a mind-shift in thinking about why the art is there. It wouldn’t be there in order to teach you to paint like a particular person. It would take a special kind of administration and a special kind of art teacher. I think it might have to be at the college level rather than elementary or high school.
But I think the main issue is the transient nature of schools. Security might be lax. The art might be stolen or damaged. At a corporation there are cameras, there are security cards. There’s the assumption that even if you don’t like the art, you shouldn’t draw a mustache on it.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: At a key moment in the Lab, you drew a bell curve on the whiteboard for all of us. Could you tell me a little bit about what you meant by drawing that, and what it means for bringing art into corporations?
Joe Shields: Sure. In the Lab, we were struggling with the question of what the collection should stand for. We were also struggling with who it should be for. Many people in the room were much deeper in the art world than I have been, but it seems to me that there is a model for public art where we take it out to urban areas and schools and we try to expose as many people to it as we can. We believe it will transform their lives at some later point.
We’re thinking about how to differentiate the West Collection given the limited resources they have. As they say in business, you can’t boil the ocean. You need to make strategic choices.
So I think there is a bell curve with three parts. If you use the metaphor of a political campaign, you have the true believers in the message your candidate is putting forward. You have the non-believers who will never be convinced no matter how much money or attention you throw at them. Then you have the people in the middle, who we call the swing vote. In this particular case, that could be people like me who would love to go to an art gallery, but don’t have time, or think it’s a pain to drive down to the city, or we have kids, or whatever the excuse is. You have a lot of people who, if you made it easy, would engage with art a lot more. You wouldn’t have to schlep down to City Center and pay for two hours of parking.
So I don’t think you need to spend time or money trying to convince the art elite that this is a good collection. They already know that. You don’t need to spend time or money trying to convince people who either hate art or don’t have access to it. For me, it’s that big group in the middle who are presently a captive audience for eight to ten hours of the day. If you bring it to them, that’s a win. And if you bring it to them and it stays there and they live with it, you could see the same kind of culture-building they’ve seen at SEI.
The people in the middle of the bell curve are also the largest group of people who can actually be influenced. A lot of them are probably in their 20s, 30s, 40s, maybe raising a family, maybe not. But they have means and they are influential in their communities. They are probably involved in sports and other activities in their communities. They may volunteer or they could be on their local school board. Their new understanding and appreciation of the art at their workplace could be like a ripple in a pond that eventually influences the other end of that bell curve.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Yeah, think about the next time cuts to arts funding are up before the school board. It’s one thing to present academic studies that demonstrate that art results in greater academic achievement. It’s another thing for the people on the board to have actually experienced that effect in their work environment.
The target would not be the corporate art buyer. The sell would have almost nothing to do with the art.
Joe Shields: I think it would be profound. You could enlist an army of middle managers to appreciate art in the workplace, improving their ability to articulate their ideas and be open-minded and collaborate with their peers. Then, though it might be explicit, over time they could bring that appreciation to their homes, their kids’ schools, their church groups, things like that.
I’m really thinking about how to scale this and also maintain its impact. One thing a marketer looks for is ready-made channels. When you are putting together a TV commercial, you know the channels. You know which audiences are paying attention to which channels. When you think about art, there is an amorphous world of school kids and the public who are just all these eyeballs. The workplace, to me, is a ready-made channel. It is a way to hit large pockets of people with one project or one installation, rather than having a bus full of art that drives around to thousands of small towns trying to make some sort of an impact.
The workplace is a multiplier. It is a beehive. You could do one project and impact thousands of lives.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: So what are some of the necessary steps you think the West Collection would need to take to get from where they are now to a point where their curatorial practices are being implemented in workplaces all over the country and all over the world?
Joe Shields: I think they first need to look at gathering stories and metrics.
They have been doing this for 15 years at SEI. It would have been fantastic if 15 years ago someone had thought to do some of the surveys companies do now through companies like Gallup and Roper, gauging employee sentiment. Then they could look at the period before they added the collection and compare it to every year since they’ve been there. What I think they would see is a huge improvement in happiness and engagement. You would also look at the harder numbers such as recruitment, retention, and new business.
Without that data it will be hard to prove that the art collection directly improved engagement. But I do think there are enough stories there. I think you could build a case that it is working. So I think you first document the reality, almost like a Harvard Business School case study.
Then you take the stories and figure out the right channels to reach business leaders, whether it’s through conferences or journals or social media. You have to be very systematic and target people who are interested in improving employee performance. A lot of the discussion in the Lab was around what art buyers in corporations might want, but you’re selling employee performance improvements, not an art collection. The people who buy that are senior executives, people in HR, people in organizational development, – the “softer” part of the corporation who tend to buy training or consulting from McKinsey.
It’s them you need to target, not art buyers. Art buyers are going to look at things like the quality of collections, whether they have big-name artists, the size of the pieces, what they’re worth – the usual art evaluation process – rather than asking, “What does it do?”
There is also a question of whether the West Collection at SEI can actually be duplicated. So before communicating the offering, you would want to try pilots in one or two other places with built-in measurement. Whether it’s an SEI facility or somewhere else, you would want to do a rigorous employee satisfaction survey, install the art, then do another survey six months later to see if it’s had any impact. Then you could also do focus groups or town halls to gauge what it is doing to the company. People in human resources have many measures of talent and employee satisfaction. You would want to use all the same measures, but you’d be testing a new stimulus to them. It’s going to take some time to measure the effect and understand if it is doing what they think it is doing at SEI.
Also, this isn’t something you can immediately slice and dice into a million pieces. The collection has a few thousand works of art. I don’t know how many pieces you would need to have an impact on a workplace – probably 100 or 150. You can’t scale this thing infinitely. So I think you would want to choose some marquee companies. If you want it to be sustaining, you would want them to be companies who were willing to pay for some degree of management and curation and consulting around how you do it. Then two, three, four years from now, you would use those companies as case studies.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: If you could pick five companies that would be the best fit for the experiment, which ones would they be?
Joe Shields: I don’t know if I have names of specific companies, but I think they should do a range of industries. You might want to try it at, say, a pharmaceutical company and see if you get the same effect. You might also want to try it across a range of regions or countries. You might also try companies who are not seen as particularly creative or who have had employee issues in the past. Maybe different sizes of companies.
If you’re really trying to prove the thesis, you would want to see if it works just as well in a big, urban company as it does in a small ad agency in the suburbs. I wonder how well it would work in an urban setting, since people in the city would already have so many choices about the art and culture they could consume.
The vision should really be to say, “Well in 100 years, how could we have the West Collection in 5,000 corporations around the world?” But you have to back up and think of all the steps to get there. I think certainly that for any company, senior management, HR, and any other kind of employee relations infrastructure would have to buy into it.
There has also got to be a level of engagement from the curators at the West Collection. They would need to be able to assess where a company culture was at, then select works that they think would cause a little bit of controversy, but not so much that they scare people away.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Let’s say West Collection approaches a bunch of large companies and they keep hearing responses like, “We already have a corporate art collection” or “We already provide cultural opportunities to our employees.” How would they make it clear that what they offer is special?
Joe Shields: The difference is that the target really would not be the corporate art buyer, but the CEO, the HR manager, or talent executives. The target would be people who are trying to buy the outcome of happier, more productive employees. These people would not be looking to buy or lease an art collection. The sell would have almost nothing to do with the art.
You could see employees in the HR department who were a combination of art buyers, psychologists, and instigators.
Though it would be nice to have the corporate art buyer and the HR executive together, to appeal to “both sides of the brain.” The ideal would be for the HR department, the art buyer, and the West Collection to work together at a company to collaborate and build something that had never been there before: a corporate art collection with purpose.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You can imagine some jaded cultural observer looking at this proposal and saying, “Isn’t there enough corporate involvement with our cultural life already?” How might you respond to that?
Joe Shields: This is really different. This is not just decorating the walls.This would be a program with proven benefits for employee morale, performance, recruitment, and retention. It’s a whole mind-shift.
This is not in the same category as asking a company to sponsor the next Salvador Dali exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That’s borrowed interest or feel-good credit for helping out some cultural group. The West Collection has come up with something that has never been thought up by McKinsey or Bain: a way to use an installed collection of art – along with curation or management or integration or whatever you’d call the Hot Hall – to improve performance at a company.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It’s kind of neat that in a way they’re saying to corporations, “If you say that you like this art so much, why don’t you try living with it for a little while?”
Joe Shields: I don’t think it’s about that. I think it’s a simple business proposition.
There are some capabilities the West Collection would also probably need to do this that they don’t have yet, like consulting managers and figuring out how to market this or bill for it. But if you really want to differentiate yourself in a crowded art world, you should really play in a whole different field.
There are plenty of artists and collections talking to business people, but all they’re really asking for is a big, fat check. The corporation gets their logo above the exhibit, maybe. This is a totally different trade. And they’re not going to be competing with anybody else in the space.
If they really want to use the collection for a purpose, and they want to monetize it in a way that makes the collection self-sustaining, I think this is the most intelligent way to get there.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: If companies started implementing curatorial practices like those the West Collection has developed at SEI, how might the world look different for artists?
Joe Shields: The artists could be or could not be involved. They could certainly have the artists come into the space to make it more personal, especially at the beginning. They could have the artists co-create things with employees as well. Certainly a lot of the cooler companies like Google and AOL have brought into writers and musicians. It may be more appropriate for some companies than others.
I’m sure that if they really dissected all of the things that they have done at SEI, they would probably find 25 different components, many of which had been intuitive or subconscious for them. You could almost do there what they do at McDonald’s, coming up with a formula and a checklist of every step you need to set this up in a company. I’m not trying to make this so left-brained that it loses its soul, but if you’re going to replicate this, you need to know exactly what “this” is. We got at some of it in the Lab or by visiting the Hot Hall, but I think we were just scratching the surface.
Think about something as mundane as food service. When you are putting a new cafeteria in a building, think of all the things that have to happen to actually operate: mechanical things, electrical things, layout, distributors, supply chain. You need to do the same thing with this art collection. You need to ask about all the things that would need to happen in terms of logistics. I think they would be surprised at how much work they have actually done over the last 15 years.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I think you’d have to add a user-experience component too.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I go to Starbucks often enough that if I meet a poorly trained Starbucks employee, I’m going to notice the difference. It would be interesting to see what would happen if they took groups of employees from SEI, who have all the user knowledge of the collection, and had them visit these new installations and comment on how it was going.
Joe Shields: Lee Stoetzel said he gives every single tour of their collection. That kind of knowledge and expertise could be hard to scale. Would they say he will now only be there one day a week, and the rest of the week he would need to be visiting the other installations? That’s not nothing. You can’t just train some graduate student to do it at the next location – they’re going to want the full experience. Otherwise it might not work.
But seriously, they could be on to something that could be the gold standard for the next fifty years of managing company culture. So many people have made so much money trying to improve company culture. Even if they got a bit of that, there is a huge opportunity. It could change the way organizations lay out their space. It could change the way corporations think about art.
If you really think it through, this could become a sub-discipline of art history. It might be that one of the standard courses you take when you get your MFA is “Art in the Workplace.” West would be the first experts in teaching the class. It could spin out a new discipline of psychology – what are the real effects of a well-managed, well-curated, antagonistic (for lack of a better word) art collection in the workplace? In a hundred years, people may assume that it has always been done this way.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: It could be an innovation on the scale of the public art museum.
This would have a greater impact on the world than any single piece they could collect.
Joe Shields: But that’s still a very check-the-box sort of thing. I saw the Mona Lisa – check. I saw some other important piece – check. And it’s not an ideal situation. It’s crowded and it’s nerve-wracking and people are pushing you.
If you really extrapolate this idea, it’s not just about West anymore. If somebody really figured out how you measure the effects of art in the workplace, what would the world look like 25 years out? What would the job market look like for people who knew how to do that? In the future, you could see employees in the HR department who were a combination of art buyers, psychologists, and instigators. That’s what Lee does. Just like you have nice lighting and ergonomic furniture, people may in the future demand good art in their workplace.
The trends of the global economy demand that we get more productivity out of each employee. Companies are trying to figure out how they can do this any way they can. If it takes rubber sharks hanging from the ceiling, they don’t care. As long as they can reach the outcomes they are looking for in a way that is ethical and safe, that’s golden. Companies like McKinsey and Bain say they have all sorts of ways to improve employee performance. We have all these levers, but we still haven’t gotten what we thought we would. Why not try art? Many of the problems associated with workplace stress might not be solved by art, but they would certainly be mitigated for many people.
West obviously can’t get to every big company in the world. But if they get to even twenty of them, they could create a whole new category where other collections could come in and do it for the rest of the world. For them to be the first and to own it and to collect the learnings would be a cool legacy to have. It would have a greater impact on the world than any single piece they could collect.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: You know, you can say this would be art for employee engagement or art for the HR department’s bottom line, but in a greater sense, it would really be art for people. The effect on people is what matters. That’s kind of refreshing.
Joe Shields: I think ultimately it is, but those other things are the ways you get it paid for.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Would you say this Lab changed your perspective on contemporary art?
Joe Shields: Very much.
I was raised in a family of middle-class art lovers. I took art history in college and I’m a photographer now. But I always struggled with the idea of artists or museums looking for handouts. This approach would be more financially sustainable for the artists and help them do good in a more systematic way. Galleries often feel random, and they cater to a fairly self-selected group of people. I think this is a way to get back to the original intent of art, sharing it with everybody, making it mean something to them and inspiring creativity. The creativity it inspires may not be going off and making a new painting – it may be a better blood glucose meter.
Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Speaking of blood glucose meters, how might you carry the ideas and the experiences from the Lab into your own work?
Joe Shields: I was very impressed with your organization. There are several techniques I feel I learned from being in the Lab.
The kind of people in the Lab are very accomplished in their respective fields. They’re prepared for the Lab, but not so prepared that they think they already have everything figured out. It didn’t feel like us against the West Collection – it felt like we were really going to work together to come to a solution. It did actually change the way I think about art and the ways it has evolved and how we view it now.