NC artists find a new canvas for their work

Charles Coble of Brooks Pierce law firm sits in front of one of his favorite pieces, “Simmer” by George Bireline, in the art collection at the firm’s downtown Raleigh office.
Charles Coble of Brooks Pierce law firm sits in front of one of his favorite pieces, “Simmer” by George Bireline, in the art collection at the firm’s downtown Raleigh office.

Get off the elevator on the 17th floor of the Wells Fargo Building downtown and go into the law offices of Brooks Pierce, and you may think for a moment you’ve wandered by accident into a very upscale art gallery.

The airy open space has pristine white walls on which artwork from the likes of George Bireline, Claude Howell and Marvin Saltzman has been carefully placed.

Across the city on Blue Ridge Road a similar experience awaits in the new N.C. Heart & Vascular Hospital, where a sculpture by Matt McConnell grabs your eyes as you enter the soaring lobby and works by Robert Johnson, Bill Bamberger and Mia Yoon soothe and excite.

That all the art at both sites are by artists either born in or with strong ties to North Carolina is no accident.

At Brooks Pierce, the partners saw the chance to expand onto another floor of the building as an opportunity to renovate and make an artistic statement that would connect with the firm’s long history in the state (it was founded in 1897 in Greensboro), says Charles Coble, one of the partners who helped choose the art.

Now some 50 paintings, a sculpture and pottery fill two floors for the enjoyment of clients and employees.

There were twin aims in having such high-quality art, Coble said.

“I think it reinforces the message we were trying to convey with the space generally to any visitor,” he said. “But certainly as important was to have something that would enhance the work space for the people who spend lots of time here. It’s hard to put a value on walking around and seeing good art in your workplace and how that can enhance the work environment but I think it does.”

The firm’s collection shares some artists with the new heart tower – for instance, both have canvases by Thomas Sayre, who may be best known for his earthen rings at the N.C. Museum of Art park, and Marvin Saltzman, who taught at UNC for almost 30 years and helped establish its art department.

And while administrators at UNC Rex Healthcare certainly wanted to make their new heart tower inviting for those who worked there, they also had another aim: healing.

“There’s evidence-based information that proves that art in a health care facility has an impact on the health and well-being of the patients, the visitors and the staff,” said Rory Parnell, owner of The Mahler, a fine art gallery in downtown Raleigh. Parnell was the lead curator of the N.C. Heart & Vascular collection. Wendy Kesterson of Bev’s Fine Art in Raleigh also worked on the project.

Chad Lefteris, vice president of operations for UNC Rex Healthcare and a member of the committee that approved the art, said they wanted pieces that would make the building feel less like an institution.

“We wanted artwork that will take you somewhere when you look at it,” he said. Pieces like Mia Yoon’s mixed-media color installation that features dozens of bright orbs attached along both sides of a wall on the first floor.

A family just got off the elevator in front of me and … they saw this and they were like, ‘Wow,’ ” Lefteris said in a recent interview. “They were going all the way down the ramp checking it out, and I’m like, ‘We have succeeded. For a moment that family doesn’t even think they’re in a hospital. We’ve distracted them in a positive way.’ 

The committee also wanted pieces that would resonate with people who visit the hospital from all over the region. With that in mind, a sanctuary area holds a massive painting by Robert Johnson, who has lived in western North Carolina for more than 40 years, that reflects the state’s mountains to the sea. A downstairs corridor showcases a painting of Paul Green’s cabin in Chapel Hill by Raleigh artist Micah Mullen and a beach scene by Richard Fennell, an ECU graduate.

The need for art

Corporate collections of art are certainly not new. Sometimes the art simply reflects the tastes of the boss. Other times companies hire a gallery owner to find something pretty for the walls. Still others curate a collection and have curators on staff. The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, for example, has more than 6,000 pieces of art and offers guided tours. In the Triangle, SAS is well known for its extensive art collection, not just at the software company’s Cary headquarters but throughout its offices worldwide.

The N.C. State Bar, which featured rotating exhibits in its old Fayetteville Street location, set aside $250,000 to buy art for its new headquarters on Edenton Street. The lawyers also decided to feature artists with North Carolina ties.

That North Carolina companies and organizations are now showcasing North Carolina artists is not surprising, said Sarah Powers, executive director of the Office of Raleigh Arts.

“If they want to represent something that is important to their company’s values, collecting and investing in local artists is something a lot of people will land on,” she said. “They might have a relationship with the artist, they might want to stimulate the economy for the local creative community or they just want to see scenes that are familiar.”

Whatever the reason, Powers said the decision to add art to a corporate environment is a smart one.

“I toured an office a couple of weeks ago, and it was a gorgeous building, state of the art, but there was no art, and because of that you almost didn’t notice the architecture,” she said. “You just sorta noticed everybody’s messy cubicles. But if you came in and saw artwork, that gives you a focal point.

“Modern offices are busy and a lot are open, and without those focal points, those investments in quality art work or visuals, it’s not something special.”

Growing collections

At both Brooks Pierce and Rex, committees gave the final yea or nay on the pieces. The process at the hospital took about two years, with decisions about where to place the sculptures and hang the art being made as the building was going up. At Brooks Pierce, the time frame was shorter – about seven months, Coble said. And while the committee was made up of all lawyers, there wasn’t a lot of debating.

“Once we had the structure of what we were trying to do – which was to build a diverse strong collection of North Carolina art – we had so many possibilities we could lay a whole bunch of images out on a table and if there was something that one or more of us didn’t care for, for whatever reason, we just set that one aside.”

Working by committee had another advantage, Coble said. Credibility.

“It’s not just one person picking out what he or she happens to like,” he said.

Both Lefteris and Coble say they’re not finished collecting.

Coble, who declined to name the value of the Brooks Pierce collection, said the partners’ hope was to continue to add curated pieces.

At N.C. Heart & Vascular, the hospital raised about $350,000 from donors for the collection – some donors gave money, some simply gave art. Parnell, with the Mahler, said now as people see the work, many also want to contribute. “We want to have a curated collection, so we’ll provide a list of artists we’d like to see in there,” she said.

And Lefteris knows where any future art will go.

“As the collection grows, we will try to blend the existing hospital and the Heart and Vascular together,” he said. “One of my goals is to extend this throughout those connecting corridors so you don’t realize when you’ve left one and gone to the other thanks to the art.”

Mary Cornatzer: 919-829-4755, @mcornatzer

Want to add art to your office?

Think you might want to start your own corporate art collection. Here are some tips we received from Rory Parnell of The Mahler Fine Art, who curated the N.C. Heart & Vascular Hospital exhibit as well as the N.C. collection that’s housed at the State Bar, and Wendy Kesterson of Bev’s Fine Art, who also worked on the heart tower and who does a lot of work with health care facilities.

▪ Bring consultants in at the beginning of a project, whether it’s a renovation or new building.

▪ Establish the parameters and then let the curators do their job.

▪ Learn about the art and the artists.

▪ Know what you’re trying to achieve. Kesterson said she always tries to focus on what the client likes but that the most important thing – even if the client doesn’t know it – is the population that walks through their doors. “(At) a hospital or health care facility, ... you have to create an atmosphere that is comforting, holistic and nurturing that will make their clients feel like they’re important and everything is going to be OK.

“For a technology-driven company that may be something totally different. They want their employees to be more productive so the selection would drive their employees to produce more.”

▪ Have a budget and don’t be afraid to start small. Kesterson once worked with a lawyer who wanted his lobby to be grandiose. “He had two small children in private school,” she said. “This was a tight budget. But we made his lobby look like a million bucks with fine art ... and then in his conference rooms and in the corridors we did prints. As he grew out of the print phase – kind of like when you’re in college and you buy prints – we took those prints and put them in bathrooms and offices and we started creating a collection that was nicer as he could afford it.”