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A contemporary frame of mind.

If there's a rhyme or reason to the Ashland Oil art collection, it's the strong splashes of color, line and texture marching across the company walls and through its foyers. Before the early 1970s, the collection was simply "bits and pieces," according to Paul Chellgren, Ashland's president. But the construction of a new corporate headquarters in Ashland, Kentucky, and a headquarters for its chemical company in Columbus, Ohio, gave the company the impetus it needed to start collecting in earnest. Chellgren, along with the corporate art director and a member of the board of directors, set up a committee to get down to business and begin purchasing some art.

They decided to focus on limited-edition prints and began buying heavily. Today, the company's 2,500-piece art collection is spread out over more than 12 buildings in half a dozen locations. The collection focuses on contemporary prints on paper, generally by North American and western European artists. In addition to the prints, the collection also features a number of oils, about 20 textile pieces and a few sculptures. In general, the works are large-scale and often stress the power and emotional drama of color. The roster of artists includes Norman Laliberte, Bruno Lucchesi, Helen Frankenthaler, David Shapiro, Harry Bertoia, Michael Moon, Jim Dine, Ann McCoy, Wolf Kahn, Paul Jenkins and Alex Katz.

The collection complements the architecture and interior design of the buildings, says Chellgren. "Our buildings are very modern -- they have a lot of hard, sharp lines," he explains. The strongly linear bent of many of the prints echoes that theme, and the bright colors and patterns of some of Ashland's Laliberte textile works enliven its stone and brick walls. As a matter of fact, the company even commissioned some of the Laliberte pieces it owns.

Ashland believes that corporate art belongs in public spaces, so the collection is displayed throughout its buildings. Since the pieces often evoke powerful responses in viewers, the company tries to position high-profile pieces in architecturally striking areas, such as atriums and foyers. For instance, a Lucchesi sculpture of Jacob sleeping on the ladder of heaven towers imposingly next to the corporate dining room, where visitors invariably are struck by its symbolic imagery, Chellgren reports.

Employees aren't necessarily more immune to the art just because they see it every day. Often they gravitate strongly toward certain pieces -- "almost taking possession of the art," Chellgren says. In fact, some employees have grown so accustomed to particular pieces as part of their work space that they've asked permission to take the artwork with them when moving into a different office in the company. Although the company doesn't have a "lending library" policy with respect to its artwork, it tries to accommodate these requests if the employee is simply moving within the same building.

Since people often ask questions about the pieces, Ashland tries to include explanatory labels, and a few years ago, some employees organized lunchtime discussion sessions about the art to gain a greater appreciation of it. Although that activity has since fallen by the wayside, the collection gets around in other ways. The company has mounted traveling shows on contemporary American printmaking and lithography, as well as shows that focused on particular artists. Ashland has even hosted the Kentucky Art Society for occasional tours.

The company has a productive relationship with the nearby Huntington West Virginia Museum of Art, which offers support services like cleaning, restoration, framing and moving. As part of its contract, the museum also buys pieces for the collection through major dealers or auctions. While no major acquisitions are in the works right now, you can bet that the next time Ashland goes shopping, it won't come back with cookie-cutter art.
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Title Annotation:Corporate Gallery: The Ashland Oil Collection
Author:Ferling, Rhona L.
Publication:Financial Executive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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