How art can change the workplace

Imagine you are walking through a soulless building. The corridors are empty. The walls are blank, save for an occasional functional notice. Nothing distracts you from the task in hand, the unrelenting routine, the looming deadlines.

Then you turn a corner and see something surprising: a colourful landscape painting, an evocative abstract sculpture, a calm and beautiful face encircled by a fish.

You pause. Maybe you smile. For a few moments, you are transported to a different place with a different mindset. Your mood lifts and your mind clears. When you get back to your desk you find you are energised and, suddenly, related to nothing you can identify, you have an idea that changes the direction of your work.

This is the power of art in the work or study environment, an impact that Art Curator Caroline Field notices as she strategically places artworks from the ACU art collection around the University’s eight campuses.

“It’s lovely for people to find artworks by accident, to come across something unexpected in that setting. It causes people to consider, to question and to become more engaged with their world,” she reflects.

A case in point is a vibrant green abstract work by John Meade entitled Corolla Component which Caroline has placed hovering in a little alcove above a dull alley. The piece sits above the natural eyeline so it’s easy to miss but the chance nature of the encounter makes it all the more powerful for those who spot it.

“It’s uplifting and enhancing of the space. Some people don’t notice it but for those who do it can be very important. It can change their mood and open up their thinking.”

Caroline says while every artist wants to be featured in public galleries, art placed in office buildings, on a university campus or in a public place can prompt even more powerful reactions

“Artworks form a touchstone where people can pause and reflect if they choose to do so. It’s heartening to see people take that time out of their busy work day to stop and reflect and admire and form an interest outside their work,” she said.

“It inspires them to perhaps leave the stress and chaos of their immediate work environment or to find reason and purpose. It can give you such a new lease on life. It can offer you a new perspective to the way you approach your work, or your daily life and it might open up new dimensions that you had not considered before.”

Art in the work or study environment has multiple effects with different works stimulating different moods and each viewer finding their own resonances. A stressed student might find comfort in a peaceful image, a stymied researcher might be stimulated by an off-beat juxtaposition, a disenchanted administrator might find meaning in a work with a social message.

Some works serve a traditional religious purpose. ACU recently commissioned a triptych, altar piece which depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, accompanied by St Joseph and St Mary MacKillop and which provides a focus for prayer Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel at ACU’s North Sydney Campus.

But the power of contemplation and meditation is also available through a more abstract encounter with an art work. Senuelo by Barbie Kjar is a surreal portrait of a woman wearing a fish as a collar. Caroline chose it because the expression on the woman’s face was so peaceful.

“It has a spiritual calm and meditative quality. I hope it will just stop people for a moment of reflection whether it’s deeply spiritual or whether it’s just to pause and contemplate. It doesn’t refer to one particular faith, but it speaks to the inner core, to your inner spiritual being.”

Art in the work environment can provide an essential mental health boost. “It provides an escape from the harsh realities of life and the stress of work. Through interacting with the art, people can become transported outside of themselves and their own personal troubles.” Philosophers Alain de Boton and John Armstrong argue in Art as Therapy that art should be seen a prescription for the ills of life and that particular challenge such as the need for consolation, creativity stimulus or a sense of peace can be found in selecting the right art for the viewer’s emotional and philosophical needs. With one in four young people experiencing a mental health problem, predominantly depression and anxiety, there’s clearly a need for such therapeutic effects.

Art also gives the viewer permission to experiment intellectually because there are no right answers to what a work means or how it can be interpreted. While that is valuable in any workplace, it is particularly important in an educational environment.

“Intellectual refinement comes with an understanding and knowledge of culture. Universities aspire to further knowledge through research and with that must come an understanding of culture. What better way to express love and support for the arts than through building up an art collection?”

Caroline believes exposure to art works is particularly important for students who have recently left school and are on the cusp on building an independent intellectual life.

“They are in a period of freefall when they can think creatively. This is a time when art can play such an instrumental, crucial role in thinking expansively, accepting and welcoming other people’s attitudes and perspectives.”

The engagement with art need not be serious. The sculpture of St Patrick opposite the concierge’s desk in the central foyer of the Melbourne campus of ACU is sometimes spotted wearing a football scarf and beanie. When bushfires spewed smoke of the city someone equipped him with a face mask.

Caroline has no problem with such irreverent interactions. “We want to make the art as accessible to students as possible and if that’s the way they wish to engage with it, well and good. A mask can come out of humour or it can be a social comment. What’s important is that they are engaging.”

Art can also enable a sense of place. A beautiful mosaic wall in a quiet grassy corner has lifted the environment and encouraged students to gather there for study or recreation. A sculpture of the founder of the Sisters of Mercy Catherine McCauley by Peter Wegner has become a focal point for graduating students who choose to be photographed with it.

Other works lift social awareness. A flashing neon sign which displays the words I am not anonymous is placed opposite a high thoroughfare staircase. At one level, the work by Konstantin Dimopoulos reads as a simple message of respect for the individual. But Caroline has overseen the placement of an old chair next to it, found in Fitzroy and used by the homeless residents of the area

where the Melbourne campus is situated. Together the two pieces are a symbol of compassion and a reminder of the humanity of the homeless people who live in the area.

Caroline is working on broadening the indigenous art collection, so that a message about the importance of First Peoples and the richness of their cultural traditions is highly visible to staff and students. She is also producing a high-quality publication featuring key indigenous artworks within the University’s collection, as part of the Office of the Vice-Chancellor and President’s commitment to ACU’s Reconciliation Plan (RAP).

Finding the right home for artworks is an important part of a curator’s role whether within a university or a corporation. Caroline is particularly pleased with the placement of a colourful bush scene with strong vertical tree shapes by Mary Tonkin against a wall of vertical slats in the health sciences area.

“When I started at the university this work was cramped into a rather claustrophobic meeting room with a very low ceiling, so the artwork didn’t have room to breathe. When I identified the current space, I instantly felt it would be better presented on this wall. I felt the vertical linear nature of the façade would feed into the presentation of this rather pulsating artwork that is such a vivid and strong capturing of the Australian bush. Now it has colour, now it has heart. It has vitality that puts a skip in people’s step as they are passing by.”

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