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A CLOSER LOOK

Business Trends : Firm Deals Artfully With Office Walls : Partners' Library of Works Is Rented to Businesses

November 11, 1987|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

They start out as clients, business owners wanting books balanced and money managed, but one step into accountant Steven Phair's office turns them into art critics. Loud ones. Mean ones. All it takes is one look at the pink, blue and red abstract painting that screams across two canvases on the muted beige wall.

"People come in and say, 'Why would you ever do anything like that to an office?' " Phair said. "Don't ask me to explain what I have on my wall. I just like it. . . . I look at black and white all day--contracts and code sections. It's great to look up and see a bunch of color."

Phair bought the Donald Kawelis diptych, or paired paintings, in 1984 as part of a $25,000 collection that he and partner David Cooney had purchased for their small office on Corporate Plaza in Newport Beach. But when their firm moved into its expanded MacArthur Boulevard quarters less than a year ago, their old art did not fill their new office. They found themselves with empty walls and emptier wallets.

Enter Art Resource Group, a fledgling firm formed by two Orange County women who have compiled a library of original fine art for rent to local corporations.

While not exactly Rent-a-Rauschenberg, Art Resource of Laguna Beach gives prestige-hungry firms with lofty tastes and limited budgets an artful alternative to calendar kitsch.

By offering a revolving palette of sculpture, tapestry, ceramics and paintings at monthly rates ranging from as little as $9 to more than $100 per work, the tiny company is moving in on turf traditionally trod by the nation's larger museums.

But while many large institutions from Los Angeles to New York have long-run rental galleries--mostly as nonprofit enterprises to raise money for museum acquisitions--local art authorities say that Art Resources is on the cutting edge of corporate art involvement, offering fine art for the first time to Orange County's faint-of-heart and weak-of-wallet.

"We're filling a niche for people to get out of that 'poster syndrome' and into the regular artists," said Miriam Smith, who started the company six months ago with partner Lynn Smith (no relation). "And we're an alternative to silk flowers."

Although corporate support of the arts has grown greatly in Orange County in recent years, not all business owners have the money--or the acreage--to follow Henry T. Segerstrom's lead and commission a work such as Isamu Noguchi's "California Scenario," the 1.6-acre garden of rocks, granite, cacti, cascading water and silent streams that graces the C.J. Segerstrom & Sons' Town Center office complex.

In fact, many executives find that even $40,000 to $60,000 is too much to spend on original art for office purposes, especially if their companies are in the throes of expansion or moving into new quarters. But Smith and Smith contend that such a budget is "modest," the minimum necessary to purchase enough original works to fill the basic two-floor, 40,000-square-foot office.

"A lot of businesses would be intimidated to see they had to buy three floors worth of art," Miriam Smith said. "But there is an alternative. They can rent, try it on, buy slowly."

Which is exactly what Cooney and Phair are doing. For about $250 a month, the accountants rent nine artworks--from abstract mono-prints by Scott Reed of New York to ceramic plates by Patrick Crabb of Tustin. Some they like. Some they love. Still others they are glad to return to the Art Resource Group library in Laguna Beach when the customary two-month rental period is up.

Although the works are interspersed with the usual employee knickknacks--the "Real Men Don't Need Tax Shelters" signs and visor-wearing stuffed cats--they go far toward giving the Newport Beach office an impression of class and competence, Phair and Cooney said.

And they give the accountants a chance to expand their art horizons while supporting the arts and covering their walls--all for about $100 a month more than it costs them to rent plants for the office. And as Phair points out: "Plants can die. Art can appreciate."

It is clients like Phair and Cooney that Art Resource Group is trying to woo, and the two Smiths contend that Orange County--with its booming economy and burgeoning office space--is just the place to find them.

In 1986, 6.4 million square feet of new office space was built in Orange County, according to real estate analysts. An additional 4.7 million square feet should be completed this year, and an estimated 2.6 million is expected to be added in 1988.

That's a lot of wall crying out for art, and a new business waiting to happen. Six months ago, it did.

As a corporate art consultant with the Irvine firm of John Lodge & Associates for the past five years, Miriam Smith said she saw the aesthetic needs of many businesses go unfilled.

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