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Chin up, chest out, artwork please.

A step up the corporate ladder means a salary bump and a handshake at most companies. At SAFECO, it also means your choice of original artwork for your office.

"In this company, when you reach the level of assistant vice president or above, it's our policy to offer you a work from the corporate collection to have on loan in your office," explains Curator julie Anderson. "It's a symbol of achievement."

it's also a symbol of how hard SAFECO, a group of companies that grew from one insurance firm, works to mingle its art collection with the lives of its employees. SAFECO's more than 600 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and pieces of glassware-mostly from Pacific Northwest artists-don't take the route of traditional corporate art.

For instance, beyond rewarding corporate climbers with office art, SAFECO commissions an area artist every five years to create a piece that becomes the President's Trophy. The company presents the trophy annually to the most successful marketing division throughout its network of U.S. offices. The artwork then moves to the winning office, where it stays on display for a year, and the company awards several smaller versions of the piece to members of the winning sales team. For the last four years, Walter Lieberman's "Winter Trees," an 18-inch bowl with carved and sandblasted images of leafless trees, has been the President's Trophy.

Likewise for the SAFECO Classic, an LPGA event the company sponsors at the Meridian Valley Country Club. Every three years, SAFECO commissions an artist to design a new prize, which remains at the Meridian, and smaller versions of the artwork are given to tournament winners to keep. Dale Chihuly, a noted area glass blower, designed the most recent trophy, a multi-piece untitled glasswork of milky white and purplish red sea creatures (see page 33).

Both Chihuly and Lieberman hail from the nearby Pilchuck School, an art school devoted to the study of contemporary glass. According to Anderson, SAFECO often purchases pieces from Pilchuck artists-not only students, but also faculty and visiting artists-and in so doing is developing an important subcollection of fine art glass.

Corporate artwork that's not bolstering executive egos in SAFECO's employee offices or traveling the trophy circuit is on display in the firm's public areas, like the lobbies, hallways, and cafeterias in the Seattle home office and at branch offices throughout the U.S. And monster outdoor artwork-a 13-foot fountain by George Tsutakawa finished in 1973, it's considered the first piece of the collection) and a 17-foot tile and clay sculpture by Robert Sperry-shares the collection with the community.

The company also donates pieces to area universities, museums, and charities. Anderson explains: "After a piece of art has had its opportunity at SAFECO, often it's time for it to go out into the world. And the donations let the company refresh the collection as well as help support the community."

That's been SAFECO'S mission for many years, although Curator Anderson predicts the company's new CEO won't be as caught up in the artwork as was the CEO she worked under in her early years with the company. "The first one had a passion for the art," she recalls, which no doubt contributed to the National Business Committee for the Arts' honoring SAFECO'S art program in 1975.

But don't count on the corporate literature about the art collection to plug SAFECO'S awards and other accomplishments. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the collection is how information about the company doesn't smother information about the art in the promotional material. Slick brochures, yes, but they're dedicated to profiling an artist or an exhibit, not the firm.

Anderson admits she spends freely on these promotions, which she says are inexpensive because all the work is done inhouse. ("It gives our public relations writers a chance to write about something other than insurance!" she laughs.) In fact, she has no budget to restrict her. Not true with acquisitions, however. She and an executive committee develop an annual budget that limits most purchases to $500 each.

What's the staffs reaction to all this fuss about the corporate collection? At a firm where anything other than white shirts and plain socks raises eyebrows, employees still dare to disapprove of a new piece of artwork. Anderson says she gets her share of negative comments-often anonymous-via phone calls, fax messages, even electronic mail. "But I like that free exchange," she exclaims. "And the nice thing is that I get messages when people really like a piece, too!"
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Corporate Gallery: The SAFECO Art Collection
Publication:Financial Executive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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