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ORANGE COUNTY AT WORK: CAREERS, COMPANIES, CORPORATE LIFE : Beauty Is in the Eye of the Corporation : Companies Turn to Art to Boost Morale and Image

May 03, 1987|JAMES S. GRANELLI | Times Staff Writer

Fine art is important to Joel Slutzky, and he thinks it is essential to his high-technology firm.

"Our stock in trade is tied to creativity, and our work environment is very important in fostering that creativity," said Slutzky, chairman and chief executive of Odetics Inc.

With a giant mural, "America," in the lobby, and 20 stylized masks in the corporate conference room, Odetics is one of a growing number of Orange County businesses incorporating art in the workplace in an attempt to improve employee morale and spruce up their image in the community.

Twenty percent of the companies responding to a survey last fall by the Orange County Business Committee for the Arts Inc. said they supported the arts in some way during 1985.

Although the figure may seem low, it is still three percentage points higher than the results for either of the previous two years. Of those that already supported the arts, more than 83% said they increased their patronage in 1985 over the previous two years. Nearly 37% said they expected to raise their contributions again in 1986.

Smaller Companies

What pleases people like Betty R. Moss, executive director of the Business Committee for the Arts, is that the figures showed that more of the smaller companies, which provide the backbone of the county's economy, are getting involved in patronage of the arts, with that involvement ranging from donations to theater groups to purchases of original artworks.

Still, it's the big money and the big concepts that catch the eye, such as the Irvine Foundation's $250,000 gift to the South Coast Repertory and Isamu Noguchi's "California Scenario," the 1.6-acre garden of rocks, granite, cacti, cascading water and silent streams at C. J. Segerstrom & Sons' Town Center office complex across from South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

Noguchi's work, commissioned by Henry T. Segerstrom, managing partner of Segerstrom & Sons, is "the single most important example of private patronage of public arts in California," said Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Newport Harbor Art Museum.

"The real bottom-line reason for outdoor public art is project identification--showing that you're doing well by doing good," said Art consultant Tamara Thomas of Los Angeles. She said most commissioned or purchased works of art for the workplace cost less than $50,000. "It gets a little competitive among the companies, and that's good for art and the community," she said.

Corporate leaders are more aware now than in the past of the benefits in promoting fine art, Moss said. "They like it, and they want to create a better environment for their employees and themselves," Moss said. "And they're building a legacy for future generations."

City Requirement

A few cities nationwide, including Brea, require developers to spend a sliding-scale percentage of the cost of their office buildings on public artworks. After 12 years of its "Arts in Public Places" program, Brea has a road map to about five dozen sculptures and other art in public places.

Some art consultants worry, however, that percentage programs create problems: Who decides what fine art is, for example, and do such programs provide enough money for art.

If city officials or committees have to approve the artwork in advance, the result is often a diluted work, said Lonny Gans, a Los Angeles art consultant who has worked for such firms as the Koll Co.

In Brea, where an average office or industrial building is valued at little more than $1 million, the required art budget for that average is $12,000--a figure that Thomas and Gans find much too low to attract consistently good art.

Often, they said, the best art seems to come from corporations where a top executive--like Segerstrom or Donald Bren of the Irvine Co.--is an art collector and has strong ideas about what good art is.

At Odetics, private collector Slutzky has tried to gear the company's collection toward the upbeat, the colorful, the inventive. Those are qualities he hopes will stimulate workers who make and design the company's robots, magnetic recorders for space missions and time-lapse video recorders for security uses.

Repertory Theater

Odetics employees have joined the art movement, forming a repertory theater group, which puts on at least one play a year. And some create their own art. One sculpture on display is a scale-model shuttle made of Budweiser beer cans--"an Andy Warhol-like pop-art sculpture," Slutzky said.

Slutzky would not disclose the amount his company spends on art, but the payoff from the company's fine art investment is tangible, Slutzky said.

Odetics was the only small company to win one of the 10 Congressional Science and Technology Awards in 1984 for advancing robotics technology.

Besides spurring creativity, art in the workplace builds employee morale by exhibiting how successful the company is, some employers believe.

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