August 26, 2011 | Sustainability + Energy, Workplace Culture + Practices

NRG Systems exterior

Photo by Carolyn Bates

On a recent warm Sunday afternoon at NRG Systems, we celebrated the work of more than 60 artists (many from Vermont) whose pieces are installed in our workplace. These pieces range from acrylic paintings and photographs to embedded floor tiles and sculptures and they’re a part of a personal collection of mine that has been growing over the years. The unveiling of this art collection may seem like an unusual blog topic for a CEO of a wind measurement company, but for me the connection between art and work is strong.

The Art of Place

Since our first manufacturing and office facility was completed in 2004 and a second manufacturing facility was finished in 2008, I have been working with a Vermont artist, Sarah-Lee Terrat, to make the spaces uniquely our own. Our LEED gold-certified buildings, designed by Maclay Architects, truly are works of art in and of themselves. The architects did a wonderful job in designing the common spaces, connecting streets (hallways), half walls and beautiful stained concrete floors—the design of the spaces suits our work dynamic well. Natural daylight pours in to the super insulated, high energy performance space.  It seemed only natural to fill the blank walls with something beautiful, rather than the common but bland corporate motivational posters you often see in workplaces.  We had already incorporated beautiful hand-painted floor murals into our concrete floors, but I wanted to do more—for our employees and for artists.

Marge, the wind goddess, overlooks the earth mural

Photo by Carolyn Bates

So for years now Sarah-Lee and I have scoured Vermont art galleries, studios and antique stores, looking for more ways to incorporate art into our workplace. Along the way, I have broadened my perspective of art. Sarah-Lee has taught me that the purpose of art is to provoke people. Not everyone is moved by art and loves the same things and that’s okay. As Sarah-Lee pointed out, art means different things to us at different times in our lives.  Suddenly an event in our life may connect us to a piece that we hardly noticed previously (I think this is especially true of poetry).  Our employees show a varied reaction and level of interest in the art and that’s ok too.  So on a recent Sunday, we celebrated this collection’s unveiling with the artists themselves and business leaders from the community.

I opened my comments that day with a question that I often encounter: Does art belong in the workplace? Excuse me?  What a funny question. Of course, art belongs in the workplace; after all, art is work. And yet, as we walk through art galleries and studios commenting on this piece or that painting, we don’t always give it much thought. We look, we admire and we don’t think about the bruised or cramped hands of those who have taken the time to create these pieces. We don’t try to figure out how and why they created it. And we rarely open our wallets to support those who have made creating these pieces their livelihood. We take their work for granted, as though an art show was created simply for us, for our observation pleasure.  I didn’t want to do that any more.

Migratory bird installation at NRG Systems

Photo by Carolyn Bates

The connection between art and work is strong.  In describing a path to fulfillment, philosophers will undoubtedly point to meaningful work as a vital part of the prescription.  We speak about something as a “work of art."  In my family growing up, this usually referred to a fine meal carefully prepared or a special Thanksgiving table, lovingly set with extra labor and attention to detail.  Conversely, we speak about the “art of work,” usually referring to someone who is particularly good at doing their work, unusually effective at it, or someone who has that elusive work/life balance figured out pretty well.

The Art of Engineering

This question then causes me to think about the employees at NRG Systems or employees at any company for that matter. As a manufacturer of wind measurement equipment, our workforce is heavily skewed towards technically trained, engineering types.  They tend to be left brain thinkers. Or are they? Often as a society we assume that these left-brained thinkers are not creative and therefore, wouldn’t be interested in art. But I know this isn’t necessarily the case. Amongst these technically minded employees, we have several musicians on our team and artists as well, as evidenced in an employee art show we held last year. We have accountants and engineers who solve problems and design and create things every day.

Isn’t their work also art? There is a function versus form struggle in everything that is made or produced…in every industry. For a writer, the words are art. For an accountant, the balance sheets are art. And for engineers, their schematics and finished products are art. If engineering were only just about function, a product may not sell. Form is clearly important as well. Do our customers care what a data logger looks like? I think they do. We certainly know that people care about how wind turbines and their towers look.  Engineering design is a very creative process.

The Art of Culture

So this art reception wasn’t just about the art collection living at NRG Systems.  I’m often asked why I do it.  Why collect art and display it in the workplace?  Certainly part of the answer is the personal joy I derive from a love of art. Beyond that, it has been a quest of mine since the beginning to enhance the workplace for all our employees.  Art is one small piece of that.  The rest of the package includes respect for each other, a good compensation and benefits package, opportunity to grow and learn and passion for the work we do in the world.  We spend a lot of time at work so it should be a comfortable place. We want to inspire creativity and innovation. And art helps us do that.

Can I quantify the impact that art has in the workplace? No. I can’t point to the many pieces and say “this is why our employees are inspired to produce, to problem-solve, to sell, to innovate.” The workplace environment and an organization’s culture is a package deal. But I know our workplace has been and is a positive place. Is it the art?


Grass Roots Art and Community Effort

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way