Office design: what is the value of art in the workplace?

The window decals that fill the Wesfarmers foyer are the work of Melbourne indigenous artist Reko Rennie

The window decals that fill the Wesfarmers foyer are the work of Melbourne indigenous artist Reko Rennie

As the workplace continues its metamorphosis from cubicle farm to open office, forward thinking companies are constantly looking for ways to revamp and invigorate the culture in their new wide open spaces. From hammocks and green walls in the new Eventbrite offices to an urban farm in the Pasona offices in Japan, office designers are being challenged to re-invent the workplace wheel. As Google have indicated, the benefits from a working environment that motivates staff are enormous. But what if slides and bean bags don’t fit into your company ethos? In the first of a three part series, Freya Lombardo visits three Australian workplaces that are using art to create unique and inspiring spaces. As Andre Smith writes in this article Why Companies Should Have Fine Art in the Workplace “The purpose of fine art is for aesthetics, or beautifying the space.  Having culture in the workplace can improve workplace culture itself… It leaves a lasting impression both on the employees who see it day after day, and on clients who visit either once or frequently.  Art is important in the branding of a company’s image as well as creating a pleasant and inspiring environment.”



Imagine this scenario, on your way to a meeting in Perth you are confronted by a mob of 20ft tall pink kangaroos flanking the entrance to Wesfarmers corporate headquarters. The sight may cause you to question your sobriety. Like a heat-induced mirage, the giant fuchsia marsupials loom larger against their psychedelic patterned background. The temporary vinyl window decals that fill the glazed foyer are the work of Melbourne indigenous artist Reko Rennie and were commissioned by Wesfarmers as part of the 2014 festival PUBLIC presented by FORM. Rennie takes emblems from his indigenous heritage and fuses them with Warhol-like pop colours and patterns for optical impact. The roos rear up and seem to claim power, land and culture with their dominant stance.

Rennie’s BIG RED is an example of the giant leap forward being made by corporations in their approach to art and collecting. For Wesfarmers, a guiding principal is ‘to encourage an understanding of the importance to society of supporting creative thinking and artistic vision’. Wesfarmers’ curator Helen Carroll says showcasing Rennie’s work in their Arts Project Space proved to be a cost-effective engagement with the artist and a huge success. “We don’t own this foyer, but the public reaction to BIG RED has been so positive that we are now planning to propose and install other artworks as vinyl decals to enliven the space and spark a continuing dialogue about art,” says Helen.

The Arts Project Space is just one significant public interface with Wesfarmers’ art holdings. The collection was started in 1977 and now comprises nearly 1000 museum quality paintings, sculptures and photographic works. While the collection seeks to reflect all the major movements in Australian art history, Helen points out that the current acquisition policy embraces more indigenous art and seeks to be more representative across a diverse range of Australian contemporary culture.

The recent purchase of Richard Bell’s Omega (Bell’s Theorum) 2013 seems to eloquently encapsulate this diversity with its synthesis of Western Desert ppaintingg, Abstract Expressionism and the high-key colour combinations of advertising.

Sharing the collection is of paramount importance in involving people with art – on Wesfarmers’ premises and beyond. Helen actively encourages appreciation by holding regular ‘floor talks’ where staff and their partners and friends can enjoy a drink while an artist represented in the collection talks about their art practice. There are also popular occasions when employees are invited to talk about particular works they love. “These interactions break down barriers between people and art,” says Helen. “As a result, our staff is very connected with the collection.”

Helen defines Wesfarmers art holdings as a working collection and takes a democratic approach to displaying artworks. “In our offices, art is everywhere – from the mailroom to the Chairman’s suite. All of the works are on display and there is nothing in storage. There is a constant rotation to keep things interesting and because we loan out many works to public galleries and museums,” she explains.

Wesfarmers’ generous loans and exhibitions program saw the recently acquired series of photographic images by Anne Ferran displayed within the offices for only six weeks before heading on a touring exhibition. A long-standing partnership between Wesfarmers and the Art Gallery of Western Australia spawned Luminous World, a thematic exhibition that brings together 60 contemporary works from Wesfarmers’ collection ‘in a conversation about light’. In curating the selection, Helen cherry-picked paintings, objects and photographs by the likes of Susan Norrie, Howard Taylor, Dale Frank, Paddy Bedford, Bill Henson, Brian Blanchflower, Brook Andrew, Timothy Cook and Barupu Yunupingu. Importantly, all of the works are being shared with the public for the first time. The exhibition has toured the National Library in Canberra, The University of Tasmania and the Samstag Museum of Art in Adelaide, attracting thousands of admirers who would otherwise never have seen the works. It is fair to say that such efforts also raise Wesfarmers’ profile in the arts beyond WA.

It is clear that the value of art to Wesfarmers is multi-layered. A core tenet of its collecting policy is that works should ‘serve as a sound investment’, though its significance runs deeper to engaging audiences and building a legacy. According to Helen, the collection is seen as having intrinsic value within Wesfarmers, especially considering that both the volume of works and art sponsorships have flourished under successive managing directors. “The fact that the collection has weathered multiple recessions without ever being at risk of being de-accessioned or sold off at auction is a great testament to its value,” she observes.

When asked what would happen if all of the art was removed from Wesfarmers’ offices, Helen exclaims that ‘it would be like sucking the life out of the place’. “Staff were shocked when works were being packed up for freight to the Luminous World exhibition,” she recalls. “They all asked ‘where has all the art gone?’. The fact that it is very noticeable in its absence speaks volumes about how much it means to us all.”

Content Production by Freya Lombardo.


If you would like to read more about office design, you may enjoy some of our other articles on this subject “Office design: even tiny changes can boost workplace well being” or “Office design: the real story behind “collaborative” workplaces”



The articles on the Charter Build blog – Officeionado – are written by the CB team and edited by Jane Bright, our Design Director. If you have any questions regarding our content, syndication of our content or content submissions, please contact Jane via email For notification on new blog posts either subscribe (top of sidebar on this page) or follow Charter Build @charterbuild and Jane Bright @1JaneBright.