One of the most exciting times for a gallery occurs when a business in the community is interested in acquiring artwork.
It is exciting because a curator then feels like an artist as well, commissioned to suggest how to “paint” entire premises with just the right selection of art. For many years, the Northwood Gallery, a department of Northwood University - where the university’s belief in and commitment to the beneficial interaction between the arts and business is perhaps most visible - has been instrumental in supplying art to forward thinking area corporations such as Dow Chemical Company, Dow Corning and Hemlock Semiconductors, all global industries headquartered in Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay region.
In summer 2014 another such opportunity presented itself. This time it involved furnishing the brand new Dow Corning building, in the brand new Uptown Bay City project on the Saginaw River bank. Being a part of this major project was exciting in so many ways: a 43 acre vacant brownfield site was to become a vibrant and sleek multipurpose urban area with commercial, residential, retail, hospitality, entertainment and medical contents. a plot by the river became the site of a beautiful, state-of-the-art new building with a curved façade reminiscent of ripples on the river. The architecturally enticing interior with many glass walls and amazing views of the water was to be turned into a stimulating and productive place of work. Original art by local artists was to a play a part in this fascinating transformation.
The Northwood Gallery was given clear and simple instructions: large canvases, contemporary and abstract style, most of it in bright and vibrant colors. It was an easy task because our area is extremely fortunate to be home to many very talented artists of national and international acclaim. A list of artists who “fit the bill” was immediately in the making. The works of Kathy Jones, Valerie Allen, Toni Swarthout, Michelle Courier, Zizelda Moreira immediately came to mind, each very accomplished, each deeply connected to this area. Only after the list was complete, did I realize that they were all women!
Kathy Jones, a doyen among them, holds an MFA degree from Central Michigan University, was born and raised in Bay City. Her first job after college was with Dow Corning where she helped design and implement the company’s first computerized payroll system. Nationally known Michelle Courier, whose work can be found in many galleries in California and Oregon, has a fine art degree from the University of Michigan and lives and works in her studio in Bay City. Valerie Allen, a true Mid-Westerner from southern Ohio, holds degrees from the University of Cincinnati and CMU, and is associated with the Midland Center for the Arts, has made Midland her permanent home. Toni Swarthout, a Midland native, still another gifted artist with a corporate experience in actuaries, was born in Midland, studied at Northern Michigan University in the Upper Peninsula, and made her career as an artist in Nashville, TN. Zizelda Moreira, a talented artist from Brazil, moved to Midland and made it her home after her husband was transferred to Dow’s Midland headquarters.
As successful corporations around the world, and reputable business schools in the U.S. know well, the role of art in business is crucial. Exposure to art promotes communication, opens people’s minds, spurs efficiency, productivity and creativity among employees; it sends the message that their employer cares to provide a vibrant and stimulating work environment. The same message is sent to customers and visitors and they know that they are dealing with an innovative business full of vitality. And it is important to note corporate art is not purchased with direct profits in mind. Rather, it is a sound investment into people’s well-being and motivation, which in turn promotes financial success. Hence, it is an indispensable asset.
Shaheen Development and Dow Corning have made a number of thoughtful choices with this project. They requested original art created by local artists and acquired through a local gallery, confirming they had the best interests in mind for the growth of the entire community of which they are a vital part. Their actions build upon the companies’ positive image in the area.
The artists appreciate the underlying commitment as well. Kathy Jones says:
“It is an honor to be a part of a corporate collection. It is the recognition and affirmation of artists’ hard work…Art cannot survive without sponsorships like this.”
Toni agrees and adds: “It gives employees an opportunity to be exposed to original art which they may not have at home. It is a strong statement that the corporation cares.”
The companies have also to be complimented on their choice of style. Here the riverside, the architecture of the building and the desired atmosphere suggested abstract over representational art. It is more thought provoking and open to viewers’ own interpretations. Colorist Kathy Jones sees her oil paintings as expressive abstractions of positive energy and motion that she wants her viewers to understand in their own ways; for Zizelda Moreira the most important mission of her acrylics is to awake people’s feelings; Valerie Allen’s multi-media work, inspired by Mid-Century modern architecture and the scenery of her native land, encourages viewers to recognize her interest in the passage of time, in processes and constant change. Toni Swarthout attempts to demonstrate in her representational abstract acrylic paintings a close, symbiotic, inhale/exhale relationship between the humans and the trees: “Art is …a conscious way of life”. Michelle Courier, also working in acrylics, is best known for her magnificent land-, sky- water- and other scapes through which she expresses her passion for light and nature. Her style is representational impressionism and her goal is to create an experience, to “allow the viewers to feel as if they had been there”. At the new Dow Corning Uptown Bay City building Michelle is represented by yet another of her styles, her organized, geometric abstractions which actually also play with the subject of trees sporadically interjected into planes of vibrant primary and secondary colors.
What Dow Corning and Shaheen Development have done is a perfect illustration or our university’s long standing philosophy, “the arts make good business partners”. The project is commendable. Although the Northwood Gallery was not the only art supplier for this amazing and large building, we are very happy that we could act in our best consciousness and help place an admirable total of 26 canvases created by these five remarkable women artists. The arts and business partnership indeed is at work again, and we are ready to collaborate with more collectors and businesses large and small, to create inspiring environments.
- Mia Dvornic, Ph.D.
Northwood Gallery Director and Curator