Since the pandemic, employers have been reimagining the role of the office — and it’s a shift that Rebecca Huxtable, manager of Art Rental at the Canada Council Art Bank, has been seeing first-hand.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022, the Art Bank gives the public unique access to Canadian art through its programs – corporate art rental, exhibitions and outreach.
Its collection is enormous, with 17,000 modern and contemporary artworks, ranging from paintings to sculptures to photography, and inclusive of artists from Indigenous and racialized communities.
“It’s a national collection,” Huxtable says. “You really see the diversity of voices, experiences and art practices in Canada over the last 50 years.”
Huxtable witnesses, through her clients, that employers contemplating the future of work are carefully considering the elements of an aesthetically pleasing, functional and healthy office — and art is a key element to making this happen.
“It can help a workplace communicate its values and its brand to clients,” Huxtable says. “It can make staff feel really good and contribute to employee wellness and satisfaction.”
Representing values through art
One of the Art Bank’s clients is the Global Centre for Pluralism: an international hub for research, education and dialogue to support positive responses to diversity. Located on Sussex Drive, the Centre’s building was previously home to the historical Dominion Archives and War Museum.
“I’m very conscious that it’s a colonial building, and we’re an organization that is devoted to inclusion and belonging,” says Meredith Preston McGhie, the Centre’s secretary general. “We really wanted to give some thought as to how we could use art to express pluralism on the walls of a building that, in a way, [is] related to some really troubling legacies of our past.”
McGhie’s team reached out to the Art Bank for support, eventually renting 24 artworks. A full-suite turnkey service, the Art Bank takes care of framing, preparation, delivery, and installation — but before any of that, it provides clients with an in-depth consultation.
“I felt like they understood what we were trying to get to very, very quickly,” McGhie says. “It was just a wonderful way of them bringing their extraordinary, encyclopedic knowledge of their collection and what it means, with our lens of pluralism.”
Sparking ideas and inspiration
As well as picking the art pieces, Huxtable worked with the Centre to brainstorm where each piece should be installed — something that sounds simple, but takes a lot of thoughtful planning to ensure the right artworks are in the right space for visual impact, and to prevent the art from damage by traffic flow or light sources.
McGhie shares an example of an artwork by George Littlechild from 1993: a photograph of his mother as a young girl at an Indian Residential School, with the words ‘Never Again’ written at the top. Originally a black-and-white photograph, Littlechild has created an unexpected contrast by treating the image with bright colours.
At first, the artwork was placed next to the lower elevator of the Centre — but after consideration, it was relocated to the lobby.
“It’s the first piece of art that you see, and we felt that was really important,” McGhie says. “It’s [reflecting] a moment we are living in Canada right now.”
In the well of the Centre’s elevator hangs a piece by Fabian Jean, whose parents immigrated to Canada from China. The painting, titled ‘New World’ (2008) shows a stage-like setting, with a young woman rowing a boat. Her expression is difficult to interpret and there are references to Asian and European elements within the painting.
“It’s exceptionally unsettling,” McGhie says. “It’s one of those pieces where you’re not sure if she’s coming or going, [and] she looks anxious.
“This piece takes up all the attention in a wonderful way. We thought this piece was important because of the themes of migration, diaspora, identity, and experience. We gave a lot of thought to the placement of this piece and we chose an elevator well, where visitors and staff can take a moment for intimate reflection.”
An energized return to the office
Huxtable anticipates the future of work will mean there is more emphasis on the office as a space for “creativity and collaboration” — and that’s what McGhie hopes the new art pieces will encourage.
“I’ve already found that these artworks have enriched the visits of people to the building, because we’re able to pause and reflect on them,” she says.
For McGhie, the art is an incredibly useful tool to open conversations around tough issues. As well as this, “a lot of our staff have said there’s just a different energy,” she says. “There’s a lot of colour in the pieces that we selected, and each of them have these amazing stories that help us reflect on the many facets of our society.”
One of McGhie’s favourite pieces is an abstract painting by artist Rita Letendre, titled ‘Blues II’. A colourful burst of purples and greens, McGhie says she’s uplifted each time she sees it. “I have more energy to have my conversations when I am in the presence of this piece – and this is the power of art: it’s supposed to inspire you and challenge you, all at once.”