One might not think of art culture and financial services sharing the same work platform, but that’s not the case in Farmington Hills where Mercedes-Benz Financial Services’ U.S. headquarters is located.
Here, fantastic modern art – colorful, bold, and not so simple to interpret – adorns the hallways, cafeteria, elevator lobbies, and conference rooms as evidence of a 12-year partnership between Mercedes-Benz Financial Services (MBFS) and Cranbrook Academy of Art, the renowned graduate art program in Bloomfield Hills.
MBFS borrows Cranbrook student pieces for an annual exhibition, and the art resides in the office building for most of the year.
Art as inspiration
Representing all ten of Cranbrook’s art and design disciplines – including fiber, metalsmithing, photography, painting, and sculpture – the artwork is selected in the spring when students are wrapping up the academic year. It’s transported, framed when necessary, and installed on all four floors of the building over a summer weekend. There it remains until the following spring when the walls are cleared, repaired, and repainted for the next batch of wonderment.
MBFS follows up with art tours and art talks for employees; artists are invited to the facility to share their perspectives and talk about their art.
Leila Matta, brand identity, design and art program manager, selects pieces that will have a long-lasting effect. A plywood and steel sculpture, mind-boggling collages, a chair made from shredded paper, surreal and fantastical digital prints – these are images that might be seen differently each day an employee walks by them.
Matta’s job, as an in-house curator of sorts, is to put up art that inspires creativity and innovation in the workplace.
“We have a lot of abstract art, contemporary art that pushes limits in terms of not being so obvious, not being so directly representational,” says Matta. “It’s really more interpretive. So it really pushes people to think differently.”
Art as tension
But with that push can come the occasional complaint, as happened last year with a 7 x 14 foot piece of pop art made of sparkly purple fabric that simply said, “There You Are.”
People complained that it was too loud, and they wanted it moved.
“We had to figure out a way to address the concerns and the feelings and the emotions, but without moving things around, because that would never end,” says Matta.
So, they called up the artist, Rafael Medina, who had moved to New York, told him that some folks didn’t understand his piece, and requested he come in and talk about his work. All employees were invited, people asked questions, and, in the end, employees walked away with a better understanding of the work, what it meant, and why he created it.
But the company’s commitment to the arts doesn’t stop by having a gallery-like setting and on-site art education. It also supports local arts programs, financially and through employee volunteer time.
Art in community
The company has art partnerships with a number of local art programs, including Art Road Nonprofit, Beyond Basics, Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, and InsideOut Literary Arts Project among others.
Not only does MBFS support these organizations financially, but it engages employees in the missions of the organizations. For example, every Wednesday and Thursday staff members have an opportunity to volunteer in Detroit elementary school classrooms where art programming that had been cut is now offered to students through Art Road Nonprofit. A temporary exhibit of Art Road student work is exhibited at MBFS each spring, and student masks (displayed in the cafeteria) are part of the company’s permanent art collection.
Another way MBFS supports local nonprofits is to give back skills and talents in areas of expertise. In-house graphic designers have created fundraising materials, brochures, and annual reports for Crossroads for Youth, Forgotten Harvest, and Detroit Institute of Arts Museum. A senior manager in the finance area helped InsideOut Literary Arts Project with strategic financial planning assistance; she ended up loving the organization, contributed in other ways, and was eventually asked to join the organization’s board of directors.
“We’re always trying to find different, creative ways to give back, other than just money or volunteer hours,” says Jennifer Korman, community relations manager. “That pro bono work is a critical part too. “
MBFS is also helping local nonprofit arts organizations to partner together so they can benefit from each other’s missions and areas of expertise. The company connected Art Road with Cranbrook Academy of Art, and now Cranbrook art students and graduates teach art to kids in Art Road classrooms.
MBFS also connected College for Creative Studies with Eight Mile Boulevard Association; one of the CCS advanced design classes spent an entire semester designing a new visual brand identity for the nonprofit.
Art as expression
To further inspire and encourage creativity in the work environment, MBFS holds an annual employee art show in the cafeteria where gallery walls are temporarily installed.
All of the employees in the building are invited to submit artwork; last year, 15 employees, none of whom function as full-time artists in their daily jobs, submitted art.
“It brings to light the creative interests, talents, and skills of people that we work with on a day-to-day basis that oftentimes people don’t know about,” says Matta.
Last year’s event, staff members from the IT department exhibited some beautiful drawings and photographs. Surprised, curious colleagues showed up at the art reception to support their colleagues, and for some, it was their first exposure to art programming.
Art and culture
Taking the company’s art interests one step further, MBFS, in conjunction with the Detroit Institute of Arts, launched a program called Seeing Beyond the Surface, where small groups of employees from different departments go to the DIA for half-day learning experiences.
An art educator at the DIA leads discussions about the artwork using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) curriculum. VTS is typically used with school children, so its use with a large company like MBFS is unique. Matta sees it as a way to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
“It’s about developing inner skills, listening to each other, and understanding where different people are coming from,” she says. “And appreciating each others different viewpoints – and why they’re all equally important.”
Art and automotive design
In promoting art in the workplace, staff members like Matta and Gorman see it as a natural extension for a German company known for its sleek, pricey vehicles.
So while arts culture and financial services seem at first a right brain, left brain clash, when tied back to the parent company, it’s not so much of a stretch. In fact, the history of artful vehicle design naturally fits with creating an atmosphere that supports innovation.
Peter Zieringer, president and CEO of MBFS, says that the facility’s art exhibition provides a work environment that is creative and inspiring, “challenging us to rethink what we know and allowing us to remain competitive.”
While art exhibitions, arts education, and community support of the arts also occurs at the other MBFS North American facilities in Toronto and Ft. Worth, what’s found at the Farmington Hills facility is unique.
“We have close art relationships in all our locations,” says Zieringer. “But here, it’s smashing.”