Featured Collection: The Microsoft Art Collection

Click to see the works in the context of their surroundings

The Microsoft Art Collection is one of one of the world’s largest corporate collections, with more than 4,000 works of art displayed in more than 90 buildings in North America and Japan. Since it is meant to be viewed and shared by Microsoft employees, customers, and visitors, the Collection is displayed in both private and public areas—on the Microsoft main corporate campus and in other locations around the world.

By: Laura Matzer

When I was offered an opportunity to write about directing the Microsoft Art Collection for Artelligenz.com, it provided me with a welcome opportunity to reflect on the past three years I’ve spent in the corporate world.

It’s been quite a change from working at various art museums across Texas, where I left behind an art education position at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas to join Microsoft. The work has never been dull; I often liken it to surviving in the Wild West or trying to herd cats: managing—and juggling—the complexities, organizational challenges, and physical problems of a growing international, contemporary art collection serving over 57,000 employees, on view in dozens of locations across North America and Japan.

The speed, intricacies, and often contradictory situations that arise in the day-to-day operations of a corporation were initially mystifying. Nevertheless, when I joined Microsoft in 2003 I knew it was a great opportunity to share an impressive collection with a sophisticated audience in a stimulating environment.

What most drew me to Microsoft was the fact we have a comprehensive interpretation program—the corporate art program consists of much more than just hanging art on the walls. My ongoing goal is to give employees, customers, and visitors a variety of “entry points” to help them better understand the art on display. For me it is all about accessibility. While keeping to the integrity of the object, I also want to demystify contemporary art for our audience.

About the Collection

The discussion of an art collection at Microsoft was sparked by an employee, who said at a meeting that adding art to the environment would enhance the workplace. A committee was formed in 1987 to look into the possibilities. At that time, Microsoft had approximately 2,000 employees and occupied six buildings. In 2007, Microsoft has more than 61,000 employees worldwide and the collection includes more than 4,000 pieces.

Mission and Vision

Our mission is to create a positive working environment and an appealing business setting, to build customer and community relation, and to educate and involve employees, customers, and community in the art of our time. We seek to promote creative excellence by presenting and interpreting international contemporary art by emerging and mid-career artists of the highest quality. We want to help to create an environment where the arts will thrive and be enjoyed for generations to come.

In partnership with artists and with the business community, our collection seeks to take a leadership role in shaping culture. Microsoft offers interpretive programs for Microsoft employees, their guests, our customers, and the community. Most of these programs are free and open to the public. We also regularly donate interactive tours in the Conference Center in Redmond, WA to fundraising auctions, and sponsor free community tours. (For information about viewing the collection, see the end of the article).

Our approach to placing art is populist—there are no artworks in individual executives’ offices. Instead, we give priority to the common areas and to those locations that have the highest visibility, considering factors such as large windows that can present problems by exposing works of art to direct sunlight (and heat) for extended periods of time.

Works in the Collection

The Collection began with an emphasis on Northwest artists and evolved to include selections of 19th century Japanese prints. By 1999, the Collection embraced the mission to include emerging and mid-career artists from around the world to reflect Microsoft’s standing as a worldwide company. The Collection now includes painting, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, ceramics, studio glass, prints, video, and digital art—all by emerging and mid-career artists from around the world. The collection’s two-dimensional works largely outnumber our three-dimensional works because of the number of available office walls and hallways. We also have seven pieces of video art. We hope to give employees online access to these pieces in the future.

As an international collection focused on emerging and mid-career artists, we seek to find and support talented young artists early in their careers. That we also emphasize regional art at the corporate and subsidiary campus locations may be unique among corporate collections.

Some recent acquisitions include works by the following artists:

  • Benjamin Edwards, an artist from Iowa who lives and works in Washington D.C., who reconfigures the familiar landscape of strip malls, gas stations, super stores, and so on into computer programmed composites.
  • Satoshi Hirose, born in Tokyo, who lives and works in Milan. We recently acquired two of his sculptures, one for the Tokyo campus and one for the corporate campus in Redmond,WA.
  • Satoru Aoyama, born in Tokyo, who now works in London. His Easeful City, which is now part of the Collection, was recently featured at the Pulse Art Fair in New York.
  • Amir Zaki, whose work explores the urban landscape through photography, video, and sound.
  • Jaq Chartier, a Seattle-based artist and co-owner of Platform Gallery, whose abstract work concerns visual references to DNA gel electrophoresis and the migration of water soluble stains.

We recently also added several commissioned works, including:

  • Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing # 1000, which was commissioned in 2000-2001for the Building 34 café.
  • Ursula von Rydingsvard’s outdoor sculpture, Skip To My Lou, which is outside Building 43.
  • Yunhee Min’s Invisible Cities (Difference and Repetition), 2003, Wall Drawing is our most recently commissioned work. It is located in Building 36.

We are currently negotiating another commissioned work for the new plaza and the surrounding buildings that will be constructed soon at the main campus.

Managing the Collection

My challenge, and what keeps me completely absorbed in my work, is to engage employees, customers, and the general public who visit Microsoft with new works of contemporary art, and to find new ways to interpret those works and demystify the process of viewing and enjoying art in our work environment.

Working with Employees

We have amazingly talented, bright people at Microsoft, many of whom majored in art and art history. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many of them. In fact, I recently met an employee at one of our art tours who was, prior to her 10 years at Microsoft, a curator at SFMOMA.

Many of our employees are passionate about the art around them. For example, when Building 127 was de-installed for re-carpeting and repainting, we received several urgent email pleas to “save the white horse.” The piece in question was Joseph Piccillo’s E-32, a charcoal on paper image of a large white horse that fills the composition, in full gallop towards the viewer. Made in 1991, it measures 81 x 51 ½ inches and makes a high visual impact with its sight line at the end of a long hallway. Although we like to let works of art “rest” in storage for periods of time, we also evaluate individual employee requests. In this case, since the art lighting is rather low and there is no outdoor light that affects the piece, we decided to let the piece remain in B 127 for an extended run.

The Collection has also, directly or indirectly, encouraged employees to collect art on their own. Last month I received an email from a former executive employee at Microsoft in the early 1990s, who is now an art collector based in Chicago. In a recent interview for the April issue of American Art Collector magazine, he said that working at Microsoft and being around the art in the work environment helped him to develop an appreciation for art.

Deciding What to Collect

To determine what we collect, I research a variety of sources. The New American Paintings journal is an excellent resource and I read the Arts section of the New York Times and numerous art magazines every day; probably over 30 publications. I also receive about 70-100 pieces of mail a day, mostly art gallery announcements. In making decisions, I closely follow our acquisition policy and mission, and I work in concert with professional art advisors. Even though the acquisitions brought in are finalized by me, I constantly strive against creating a tyranny of taste.

I also consider whether there is an obvious gap in the Collection that an artist’s work would fill. Does the artist represent a region where Microsoft is located, reflecting the diversity of employees? And, since the large majority of artworks are relocated about every two years, will they be appropriate elsewhere? In researching the collection’s strengths and weaknesses, I found ample additional opportunities to showcase art by emerging and mid-career artists from China, India, and Russia, as well as several other countries. This will also serve us well as we begin to place art in new international locations, such as Tokyo, and possibly Bangalore and Hyderabad.

While one of the Collection’s objectives is to create a positive work environment, it is inevitable that a particular work will not suit everyone’s taste. Contemporary art often challenges what constitutes “art” which, in turn, challenges the viewer. In our opinion, this creation of a positive or negative dialogue is what makes having a critically acclaimed art collection on campus so exciting and meaningful.

Business Aspects of the Collection

As one might suspect, we use Microsoft software for our collection management database, which is currently being updated from Microsoft Access to Microsoft SharePoint. Although we initially considered 3rd party collection management software designed for museums, we quickly learned that updates could pose security issues. When we learned that museums the size of the Met work on a Microsoft SharePoint-based platform, the decision was easy.

We have an outsourced staff of four full-time individuals: a Registrar, a Collection Manager and Researcher, a Collection Administrator, and a Lead Art Installer. Considering that we manage a collection comparable in size to that of a small art museum, we are very efficient and coordinated in the work that we do.

Although we cannot share detailed budgetary information publicly, the budget is based, in part, on the number of new buildings in our portfolio. Each new building receives a proportionate share of new art, commensurate with the building’s size and number of occupants. Also, the Collection’s scope evolves each year to include new subsidiary campuses worldwide.

Acquisition Policies

We manage acquisitions following extensive criteria and guidelines, which are itemized in our Acquisition Policy. Acquisitions are based on the needs and requirements of the Collection per fiscal year. Each acquisition must be appropriate to the Collection’s mission and be an authentic work of art; i.e., it has to conform to a prevailing standard of high aesthetic merit and historical significance. It must also be free and clear of any encumbrances of title, subject only to the artist’s underlying copyright, and may not be of questionable provenance.

Because the art is hung in a work environment where a diverse workforce often spends long hours, we avoid acquisitions that are overtly political or religious in nature, as well as partially or fully nude figures. We also consider some of the following points:

  • Is the artwork practical in an office or outdoor setting?
  • Will the artwork be one that employees want to “live with,” an object to discover and rediscover?
  • Is there an obvious gap in the Collection that this artist’s work would fill?
  • Does the artist represent a region where Microsoft is located, to reflect the diversity of Microsoft employees?
  • And, since the large majority of artworks do not stay in one location, will they be appropriate elsewhere?

Our policy is not to accept unsolicited inquiries by artists or their representatives. For artists, we strongly recommend seeking representation by an art gallery and having the gallery send us materials directly. We have a de-accession policy for artworks that may be considered inappropriate to the workplace. Also, we do not accept gifts or donations of art objects in-kind or incoming art object loans. We do, however, regularly loan select objects from the Collection to arts institutions and organizations on an as-requested basis, after ensuring that each organization is properly insured and bonded.

Interpretative Programs and Outreach

The education and outreach program is fundamental to the Collection’s mission. We offer a variety of programs, publications, and services to promote lifelong learning in the visual arts and to stimulate independent and critical thinking skills. We seek to share and convey a passion for art and for art education by educating employees, customers, and the public about the Microsoft Art Collection. We also have an active object loan program for local, national, and international art museums.

Our programs include:

  • The Artist Lecture Series, begun in 1999, where artists represented in the Collection speak to employees and the general public about the piece in the Collection, the process behind their art, and what they are currently working on.
  • The Artful Readings series, launched over a year ago, which is a book club program designed to recreate a Parisian salon-style atmosphere, where small groups can discuss an art-related fiction or non-fiction selection as it relates to specific works in the Collection.
  • In the past, we offered a series of Collecting Today programs in collaboration with Sotheby’s, giving beginning and established art collectors an opportunity to hear panel discussion by artists, auction representatives, gallery owners, curators, and a seasoned collectors discuss collecting in a particular medium.
  • We also offered a variety of Special Programs, two of which were held at the Seattle Public Library, on diverse topics such as corporate art collecting in the United States and artists who “mine” the library for inspiration and subject matter in their work.

Visiting the Microsoft Art Collection

If you’re in the Redmond, WA area, please call 425.421.1312 or email artevent [at] microsoft.com with your contact information. We’ll let you know when there are organized tours at the Microsoft Conference Center (MSCC) that you can join. If you’re interested in an individual or small-group tour (fewer than 10 people), the MSCC is occasionally open for self-guided tours. If your group is larger than 10 people, we can schedule a docent-led tour. Launched in 2006, we now have an employee-docent program that trains employees to lead tours of the Collection and to share their passion about having art at work with others.