Tech Firms Hire Creative Minds To Inspire Workforce

By Queenie Wong
The Mercury News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From commissioning artists to create specific works for their campuses to sponsoring “artist in residence” programs, more tech companies are looking to artists to inspire their teams.


Artists splash explosions of color on walls along urban streets or on canvases displayed in museums, but in the Bay Area, such creative minds are bringing eye-catching images to a more private space: tech offices.

At Facebook’s headquarters, the walls, stairwells and floors are drenched with contemporary art. The company invites artists to participate in a residency program to create murals, sculptures and other works to help foster the creative thinking and hacker spirit that keeps the tech firm thriving.

“Having artists come and consider this campus to be their canvas really takes away some of the preconceived notions about where and how you would make art,” said Drew Bennett, director of Facebook’s Artist in Residence program.

Tech companies such as Autodesk and Adobe pay artists to use their materials and equipment to complete projects. Google’s Cultural Institute in Paris hosted a residency for street artists who created artwork with its virtual reality tool Tilt Brush.

Other tech firms commission artists to create more specific work for their campuses. LinkedIn recently hired Bay Area artists to depict the economic graph, a digital map of the global economy, for its new San Francisco office.

After watching a video about the graph, San Jose artist Patrick Hofmeister created a dreamlike oil painting that showed two figures in different realities, pieces of them dissipating, as they connect with one another.

“Even though it was very specific, I would still say we had a lot of freedom. They left so much to be interpreted,” said Hofmeister, who had about a month to complete the work.

Facebook doesn’t accept applications for its program, but seeks out artists it thinks would match up well with its culture and mission.

At Facebook’s Analog Research Laboratory, a printing studio and workshop on its Menlo Park campus, Oakland artist Carissa Potter displays a variety of prints and illustrations on a wall.

In one piece titled “Reading People,” two silhouettes, one blue and another pink, are conversing. “We should totally hang out!” the blue person said. “For sure,” the pink person replied. But the thoughts in their heads reveal that one is too busy while the other already has enough friends.

“I’m really interested in human relationships and generating connection between people and searching for meaning,” she said. “My mission is sort of similar to Facebook, but in a different medium.”

Even on a Friday afternoon, there’s no escaping the Facebook workers and their families who venture in and out of the studio to tour the space or look at artwork.

Potter is putting together a booklet with illustrations and lists of ways to feel better in tough times. She prints black text on white socks, but has many more to go. The words are comforting. You Got This. One Foot at a Time.

“They’re hidden like a superhero suit,” she said.

About 125 people have gone through Facebook’s artist program, which has grown as the tech firm expands its office space locally and worldwide.

“The idea of an artist in residence in a business environment is something that comes and goes,” said Shannon Jackson, associate vice chancellor for the arts and design at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not a Silicon Valley invention, but there are different reasons why it gets rekindled.”

In addition to inspiring employees who are trying to come up with the next big idea or solve problems, the programs are another way to financially support creative work, Jackson said.

Facebook had a history of supporting artists before it started its residency program in 2012. The company hired graffiti artist David Choe to spray-paint to its first office in Palo Alto in 2005, offering to pay him $60,000. Choe reportedly chose instead to accept Facebook stock, which turned out to be worth more than $500 million years later, though it isn’t clear how many shares he still owns.

“You have all these artists chasing that dream, but it’s like winning the lottery,” said William Rowan, who founded and runs Collabo Arts, an international creative agency that has worked with Yahoo, Google, Cisco and other tech firms on art projects.

While Choe’s story is well known, artists nowadays are more reluctant to accept work just for the exposure or promises of getting paid if a startup makes it big, he said. Facebook declined to say how much the artists are paid during the residency.

For artists though, it isn’t always about a paycheck.

Berkeley artist Masako Miki spent about six months at Facebook, printing in the studio and creating a large black-and-white drawing of a wolf riding on a whale on a wall. Located at Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed Building 20, the mural also features antlers, symbols of renewal, touching one another.

Miki got the sense from talking to employees that in the tech industry there’s a sense of constant change, but workers are always doing something new to survive.

Drawn to how whales evolved as a species and wolves work collectively to survive, Miki thought the images would resonate well with the tech employees. She got to pick out the wall to display her mural, which had a light shining overhead and two doors, creating a sense that the animals are moving forward.

“The colors that they see every day, the images they pass by are going to affect their psyche even if it’s not consciously,” she said.

But at tech firms, art sometimes has a temporary shelf life.

Bennett spent months painting a gorilla spewing a rainbow into a waterfall, mountain ranges and Aspen groves at a stairwell in Facebook’s Palo Alto office.

When the company moved to Menlo Park, that mural was painted over, fading back to a blank canvas.

“I really resonate with the ethos of the company. You really have to be forward thinking for progress,” he said. “As much it was sad to lose that work, it’s kind of cool to be part of something that has so much momentum that old ideas go by the wayside.”

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