The Art of the Deal

Art decorates the white-collar walls of many Phoenix business high-rises. Most of it is more decor than art. Given the setting and atmosphere of the modern corporation, it almost has to be low-voltage stuff, drawn from the stocks of interior designers and meant to coordinate with dominant color themes. So, you see a lot of abstract copper wall-reliefs or pastel collages made of ripped, handmade paper. We can't distract our workers with seriously engaging pieces; think of the effect on productivity!

But does it make a difference when one executive has a passion for art, and the power to place it on corporate walls? That depends on his or her aesthetic discrimination. What you see is what they collect, and money is no guarantor of taste. Donald Trump is a far cry from Cosimo de Medici, yet here is The Donald declaiming on the murals he had painted on his living room walls: "If this were on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it would be very much in place in terms of quality." Oh, please.

Or consider the late Don Tostenrud, when he was running the Arizona (now Security Pacific) Bank. Next to fire engines, Tostenrud loved Southwestern and Native American art, so the walls of the bank's downtown headquarters were filled with images of cowboys, Indians, horses and campfires. Most of these pieces have, thankfully, not been offered for public view, a policy we can only hope will continue.

"Corporate art" really is a misnomer. Institutions don't make aesthetic decisions; even a committee for art purchases usually is led by one executive, to whom the others defer. The collection may range from classical, gilt-framed pieces (David Rockefeller, Chase Manhattan CEO), to infuriating, avant-garde creations (the late Robert Scull, New York taxi king), to profusely eclectic works (Charles Saatchi, London advertising mogul).

Here in Phoenix, in a decidedly different league, the general public now can view the visions of two corporate collectors, Edward Jacobson, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer, and Morton Fleischer, CEO of Franchise Finance Corporation. Photographs Jacobson collected for Snell & Wilmer are on display at the Phoenix Art Museum; the Fleischer Museum in north Scottsdale has been open to the public since May. It would be hard to find two more different sensibilities.

Jacobson's name often is linked with the phrase "avid collector." Long a mainstay among Valley art patrons, he has raised money, served on boards and bought and donated artworks. In fact, he recently donated his 95-piece turned-wood bowl collection to the ASU Art Museum.

Jacobson is eclectic. Five years ago he began to collect pieces by Arizona photographers for display at the Snell & Wilmer offices. Why photography? One reason, Jacobson explains in his foreword to the museum catalogue, was affordability: "In 1985, photography was not particularly sought after on the art market. Prices were not inflated and fine works were available for purchase."

What he purchased certainly has range. In the 150 pieces on display at the Phoenix Art Museum, you can see examples of nearly every major genre--landscape, still life, portraiture, technical virtuosity, visual joke, postmodern experimentation, historical document and sociological peek.

It's as though Jacobson had a check list of categories to consult and felt determined to include every one: The Noble Indian Face. The Shiprock Picture. The Sunstruck Adobe Church. The Hopiland Sunset. The Cactus Close-up. The Grand Canyon Panorama. The Georgia O'Keeffe Portrait. The Chicano-Poverty Interior. (He did miss the Coyote, the Saguaro, and the Rattlesnake, those talismans of Southwestern schlock.) Each image is, of course, technically excellent, and as beautiful and safe as anything in Arizona Highways.

What you won't see is anything thought-provoking, disturbing or challenging. But we really cannot expect to confront an image of Robert Mapplethorpe, bullwhip snaking out of his ass, glancing over his shoulder at us as we wait for our appointment with the lawyer. And we cannot imagine stepping out of the elevator onto plush carpeting and coming up against one of Nicholas Nixon's poignant portraits of AIDS victims. Clashes with the atmosphere, don't you know.

And that's one of the problems with corporate art. Who knows what Mr. Jacobson harbors in his home? At work, he has to filter his sensibility through the expectations of his fellow attorneys, support personnel and clients. Chances are, their minds inhabit a landscape far removed from the cliff edge of aesthetic reflection.

But some of these images do come close to an edge, where you can see that you're approaching that cliff. Consider, for example, With Emmett by Harold Jones. It's a black-and-white photo of a highway rise, with scrub on both sides, a huge, cloudy sky above, and power lines dipping over the hill and out of sight. This quiet picture evokes all the contradictory expectations you feel while traveling, wondering what might be over the next rise--a motel, a gas station, an incredible panoramic sunset, a car wreck, or just more miles to go before you sleep.

Another black-and-white photo, an untitled piece by James Hajicek, shares some of the same melancholy air. The bottom third of the photo shows, in a flat diagonal, the top of a cyclone fence strung with barbed wire. Above this hovers a black and threatening sky. One gets the feeling of a prisoner gazing longingly over the fence, but even freedom looks foreboding.

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