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Modern Art's Big Business in San Diego : Wyatt Co. Among Challengers to Conservative Tone

May 23, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — The Wyatt Company may have risked alienating its high-rolling clients last year when it purchased and installed 24 contemporary works of art in its new offices on Genesee Avenue.

A gamble? Yes. But success in business often requires taking risks.

Wyatt is an international business consulting firm whose sober, gray-flannel clients range from such Fortune 500 giants as General Motors and IBM to regional corporations such as Security Pacific Bank and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

Wyatt is also one of a few San Diego-area businesses that have recently begun to buy modern, abstract art. In other cities, particularly in New York, corporate collecting of contemporary art has caught on in a big way.

The Equitable Life Assurance Society of America is spending more than $7 million on some highly controversial artworks for its new offices. Chase Manhattan Bank, which began collecting art in 1959, bought 1,200 modern paintings and prints in 1985 alone.

Out West, the United Bank of Denver acquired nearly 150 contemporary artworks in 1983. In Los Angeles, Security Pacific Bank has accumulated a 6,000-piece collection, nearly three-quarters of which is by California artists.

In San Diego, though, the business community is just "discovering" modern art. A conservative approach rules here, where the tradition is "decorator art," that is, inexpensive reproductions and prints.

As Los Angeles art consultant Tamara Thomas put it: "In corporate art, there's conservative, very conservative and to the right of Genghis Kahn."

How does an executive wisely spend the company's hard-earned profits on something he may not understand? How does he tell the difference between "good" art and "bad" art when one can be as expensive as the other? Can a firm with a modest budget even afford modern art?

And what about the art scene in San Diego? Are artists in San Diego creating quality work?

One way to acquire modern art is to use consultants, who make a living helping businesses take the plunge into contemporary art waters.

The largest and best contemporary art collection in corporate San Diego may be that of Aerojet General Corp., the La Jolla aerospace and defense contractor. When the company built its new offices on North Torrey Pines Road in 1979, it decided to decorate with contemporary art.

"We looked at what we're building--rockets, missiles, spacecraft. Prints and the Old Masters didn't seem appropriate," said Tom Sprague, Aerojet vice president of public affairs. "It was a modern building, and we were a modern, high-tech firm. We thought contemporary art would be appropriate and hopefully stimulate our employees to be more creative. We live on creativity."

Aerojet looked at several consultants and chose Hunsaker-Schlesinger Associates of Los Angeles.

"We had an ideal situation," said Laura Schlesinger, referring to the Aerojet committee of one she worked with, a man who was "open-minded with an intuitive eye . . . and an enormous capacity for fine art."

Working with this executive (who is no longer with Aerojet), Schlesinger compiled a collection of 237 works of art over a period of three months.

"The reaction of employees ranged from 'Gee, that's great,' to 'How can I get that off my wall?' " Sprague said. Negative feeling were reduced, however, through an educational program Schlesinger initiated. She held after-hours lectures for all employees and their spouses, giving a presentation on the artists' careers and on the pieces Aerojet had purchased. She even had artists come talk to the employees about their work.

The education paid off. Now interest in contemporary art has risen among employees, said Sprague, "because if you go to a museum in Chicago and see a Jasper Johns, and say, 'My goodness, I've got one of those on the wall in my office,' suddenly you begin to see that the work really is appreciated."

Besides works by Johns, the Aerojet "office decorations" include pieces by such internationally recognized artists as Frank Stella and Claes Oldenburg as well as local artists Robin Bright and Russell Forrester.

Schlesinger also advised the Wyatt Company on its modern art acquisitions. As a consulting firm, Wyatt specializes in personnel matters, offering advice to clients on issues such as employee compensation, risk management, benefits, and research and information services. The company decided to practice what it preaches with new office space that combines the latest in high technology and excellence in architecture and art.

"We wanted to create an optimum, productive work environment for our employees as well as an attractive place for our clients," said Paul Sanchez, a Wyatt spokesman. With an office in a contemporary building, it was a natural decision to choose contemporary art.

Wyatt failed to respond to anything in her first presentation, Schlesinger said. However, once the artworks were presented to a small committee, that changed.

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