The Unexpected Payoff of Mixing Art and Industry
Story by Andrew Dietz
Even the established processes of innovation need to undergo transformation from time to time. Such is the case with artist residency programs and their intersection with business innovation.
A metamorphic switch is occurring. Artists are now pursuing residencies in traditional organization settings alongside, for instance, business executives. Big company executives are increasingly shifting strategic retreat locations from conference centers to makers’ spaces where they co-mingle with inventors and entrepreneurs.
Of course, the fact that Facebook has an artist-in-residence program is lovely but not surprising at all. Nor, in an environment like Facebook – rich and preconditioned for creativity – could it make that much of an impact. The fact that Autodesk – the maker of products for makers and maker spaces – hosts artists-in-residence so they can see what new uses those artists will come up with for their products is as much an example of product testing and focus group analysis as it is of pushing the art|business envelope. The fact that Amtrak hosts a writer-in-residence program so already-anointed authors can pen their next book while riding on a train is a clever public relations gimmick but not so much an authentic artist haven nor a corporate culture gamble.
More interesting, more impactful and more genuine are the creator-in-residence initiatives of unsung institutions and off-the-beaten-track businesses. It is in these unobvious places that commerce and art truly step closer to the perilous edge where unexpected ideas emerge.
Brandon Hinman’s career had perfectly prepared him for work in a pants factory.
Hinman had previously labored in a Quaker Meeting house in Boston, toiled alongside geologists in the Mojave Desert, served glaciologists on the Greenland ice sheet and supported sculptors on a historic 350-acre farm in rural Maine. In January 2013, Hinman landed a role at L.C. King – a 100-year-old denim overalls manufacturer – as the pant maker’s first artist-in-residence.
Artist residencies and retreat centers are, traditionally, set up in idyllic locations where creators can commune with their artwork and a handful of like-minded artists. Such creative havens have been around the U.S. since the turn of the 20th Century when some well-healed art patrons and participants, Spencer and Katrina Trask and Edward and Marian MacDowell, founded Yaddo (1900) and MacDowell Colony (1907) respectively.
MacDowell Colony rests on wooded property near the Mondanock Country Club in Peterborough, NH. Its main building – the white columned Colony Hall – resembles a New England sorority house and one of its studios was originally built with the support of an actual sorority - Alpha Chi Omega. Its roster of past participants – from Thornton Wilder to Leonard Bernstein – lend an air of artistic aristocracy to the fragrance of maple, birch, and beech trees that scent the property.
Yaddo’s preeminent feature is a handsome 45,000-square-foot stone mansion nestled amidst rose and rock gardens on 400-acres on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs, NY. It is a national historic landmark with a $30 million endowment.
L.C. King Manufacturing’s factory is a work-a-day brick building at the corner of 7th and Shelby Streets not far from the main strip – State Street - in downtown Bristol, TN. Its most visible feature is the Factory Store in which you can get outfitted in a pair of Hickory Stripe Carpenter Jeans, a Pointer Brand t-shirt and a Brown Duck Barn Coat all for under $250. L.C. King’s artist-in-residence program endowment is $0.
Hinman’s path to the edge began with a skillet and spatula.
After graduating Furman University he became Head Chef for a guesthouse and cultural retreat in Travelers Rest, SC. Less than a year later, he migrated to Boston as Kitchen Manager and Chef for Beacon Hill Friends House the historic home and residence of Boston’s Quaker meeting house. Then he agreed to do a stint as Field Manager and Chef for MIT's geology winter research camp in the Mojave Desert. He followed that by signing on for a tour of duty as Head Chef for an ice-core drilling and research station in Greenland.
Cooking on a glacier isn't high art. Plus, it's hard to keep the food hot.
Back in Boston, Hinman launched a new business to supplement his chef-in-residence work: Wink Supper – an underground dining club that staged pop-up, salon-style gatherings in offbeat (sometimes illicit) locations with Hinman acting as instigator, orchestrator and chef. He scored kudos from Boston area critics for these renegade caterings, these foodie network happenings.
Still, no one called him an artist.
In June 2011, Hinman picked up a three month gig as Sous Chef for the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture – a storied summer residency program for artists in central Maine. Like Yaddo and MacDowell, Skowhegan’s list of graduates and supporters has been a who’s who of art world insiders: residents like the painter Alex Katz and instructors like famed photographer, Berenice Abbott.
Inspired by the blue chip artists that surrounded him, Hinman spent his free time drawing. One of the blue chips took notice and invited him to join an open studio night where the residents share their work with each other – staging their quarters like mini-galleries. Hinman arranged his drawings on a wooden dresser in the old hunter’s cabin where he bunked. He set a bucket of beer alongside the table and opened his door to the residents. Turned out, the feedback was very positive.
Turned out, maybe Hinman was an artist.
If so, Hinman still thought of himself as a performance artist. A year later, he relocated to the Tri-Cities region to study the art of storytelling at East Tennessee State University. Tri-Cities includes the Tennessee towns of Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol.
Bristol is known as the Birthplace of Country Music and, if that’s not clear before you head in that direction, on one of the major thoroughfares entering town there’s a three stories tall, 70 feet long guitar to clarify the matter for you. Bristol is also home to L.C. King and, with nothing better to do one day, Hinman toured the factory. “I noticed a ton of space – like dozens of industrial sewing machines in this big room with only four people using them. I wondered, where is everyone?” Hinman said. “How are they still alive as a cut and sew business – making jeans for farmers and workmen - after 100 years? The answer was raw tenacity.”
In fact, L.C. King had been brought to its knees by the loosening of international trade that came with the North American Free Trade agreement and relaxed tariffs on textiles imported from China. At one point, the factory had dropped from some 200 employees to just 28. It wasn’t likely that tenacity alone would save the place.
A Brief Interlude
Before continuing with our tale of textile ruin and redemption through (spoiler alert) art, let us pause to consider how art residency programs moved beyond the pristine Maine wilderness and into the polished hallways of corporate America.
In 1960, Billy Kluver was a 33-year-old Member of Technical Staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ. Bell Labs was the Research and Development organization of the AT&T monopoly but it went by nicknames like the “institute of creative technology” and the “idea factory.” Its engineers and scientists (some of them Nobel prize winners) produced inventions like the transistor and the solar cell. Provided at Bell Labs with the space and culture to think expansively, Kluver perceived a widening gap between technology and art that he intended to shrink.
“If the engineer gets involved with the kinds of questions that an artist would raise, then the activities of the engineer goes closer towards that of humanity... the artist widens the vision of the engineer,” Kluwer once told an interviewer.
Kluver first tested this notion in cahoots with artists, Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg. With Tinguely orchestrating the effort, “Homage to New York” was created as a “self-constructing and self-destroying work of art.” It was a 23’ x 27’ Rube Goldberg contraption of found mechanical objects set to spinning and shaking, burning and crumbling for some 27 minutes on March 18, 1960 before the NYC fire department doused the flaming rubble.
“Homage” was a precursor to the 1966 formation of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) by Kluver and Rauschenberg. Along with 10 New York artists and 30 Bell Labs technologists, the group developed and filmed performance art pieces that incorporated technologies like video projection, wireless sound transmission, and Doppler sonar.
By 1969, E.A.T.’s membership had grown to nearly 2000 artists and 2000 engineers who were committed to crossing the art | science crevasse. That same year, the giant Xerox Corporation launched Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (P.A.R.C) as the copier company’s new R&D center. Xerox PARC is the legendary facility that birthed the laser printer, the graphical user interface and Ethernet among other grand inventions. In 1991 Xerox PARC hired Rich Gold, a researcher who combined artist/musician talents with inventor skills. Two years later, tipping the hat to E.A.T., Gold founded PARC Artist-in-Residence (PAIR) program – where artists and scientists were “paired” to explore the new and different.
Today, artist-in-residence programs among elite Silicon Valley ventures are coveted badges of cool.
“There has been a flurry of residencies popping up in the Bay Area especially in the more “think tank” atmospheres,” said Flannery Patton, Director of Member Services + Communications at Alliance of Artists Communities (AAC). “ZERO1 is a non-profit organization that’s matching artists with companies in the Bay Area to work on specific projects – like with Google and Adobe, for instance.”
What, however, if your company is not a Fortune 500 business? What if your organization or art studio is not located in a top ten U.S. metropolitan area?
Let us now return to Bristol, TN.
If the scientist and the sculptor should collaborate perhaps the painter and plant manager should, too?
Rather than wait to get accepted at a retreat like MacDowell or at corporate program like Facebook, Brandon Hinman decided to create his own artist-in-residence program. Hinman was intrigued by the homespun charm of the L.C. King factory. His own wheels spinning, Hinman wondered how an art residency could illuminate the one hundred year history of the company.
A few days after touring the place, he dialed the L.C. King switchboard and explained his idea to the receptionist.
“L.C. King Manufacturing,” a woman’s voice drawled.
Hinman jumped right in. He proposed working as an artist on the shop floor and putting together an art show to culminate the project.
The receptionist listened, scratched her head. Is this guy nuts? Did he dial the wrong number? After an extended pause, she said, “Let me transfer you to Ben Collins.”
“I got a call from this guy who wanted to make art in the factory and I was like, um, ok,” Collins said.
Ben Collins was a year into his role as Creative Strategist and marketing leader for L.C. King and was already on a fast path to reshaping the company’s brand. Hipsters who had embraced authentic Made-in-America products had discovered L.C. King’s Pointer brand and Collins had discovered a heap of hipsters talking his brand up on social media. Now, Collins was hustling hard to capitalize on the trend. He created a new L.C. King brand, produced new merchandise to fit this Millennial Generation, anti-establishment sub-culture and ramped up social media buzz and digital channel sales. He was also preparing to promote the company’s 100th anniversary that year. To Ben Collins, Hinman’s idea immediately struck him as another way to freshen the antiquated company’s brand and to celebrate its big anniversary.
Brandon Hinman moved in. Set up shop amongst the workers. Chatted them up. Wore their denim creations. Sketched and assembled and watched and listened and puttered around the 2nd floor. He sweated and swept the unused third floor of the factory and converted it into “Pointer Studio” to exhibit his finished works. The culmination of his efforts: an open house art show mingling blue jean makers and the broader Bristol community.
Hinman’s press release sums it up:
For Immediate Release:
Pointer Studio Artist Residency Exhibition
Bristol, TN, April 2013: Pointer Studio Artist Residency at LC King / Pointer Brand
Brandon Hinman is the inaugural artist-in-residence at LC King/Pointer Brand. During his three-month stint here, Mr. Hinman reported to a temporary studio on the factory floor, where he created art work inspired and informed by the history, technologies, materials, processes, and story of LC King/Pointer Brand. The artist residency is one of the special projects LC King/Pointer Brand is hosting to mark its centennial year of crafting handmade quality goods and its ongoing commitment to creative work.
Mr. Hinman's intent in establishing a studio practice in an active factory is to make work about the work of others. His Pointer Studio project explores ways to mark time in the factory setting, methods of documenting repetition, the performance of showing up/punching in, rules for making+production/rules for living, threads and stitches reinterpreted as drawing, abstractions of garment patterns, and re-purposed assemblages of factory furniture as devices for inquiry and display. A collection of this work can be seen on the third floor and in a street-front window of the factory.
Workstead is a design studio that focuses on architecture, interiors, and products. In collaboration with Mr. Hinman, and created just for this centennial exhibit, Workstead designed a set of new lights inspired by old factory lights. Their studio is based in New York City.
“Making the strange familiar and the familiar strange,” is a quote attributed to the 18th Century German poet Novalis and it is the aspiration of any good artistic intervention residency in the 21st.
“Residencies should leave time and space for the unexpected to be noticed and processed – not only by the artist but by the organization,” said Brandon Hinman. “It should provide for moments of disruptive self-reflection as well as for shared experience. Time alone and time together with others in the space. The goal is to disrupt the usual pattern of thinking and to create a unique unforgettable experience and shared story that changes everyone involved and changes the work produced.” Hinman’s do-it-yourself artist-in-residence program at L.C. King seems to have met those goals both for Hinman and the company.
For starters, Hinman’s presence lifted morale. “Everyone held their shoulders up just a little higher because of it,” said Ben Collins. “Having someone document their work home and make art about it – the residency sent a message that what they do is important.” As the company was in the process of extending its brand to a new audience, having the residency support a commensurate cultural shift was especially useful.
The timing of Hinman’s artistic intervention complemented an in-the-works slate of initiatives that raised the profile of L.C. King as a good-ol’ American brand with a brand new energy.
The pants company had already embraced contract manufacturing for other brands by the time Hinman took the factory floor. For example, in early 2013, the company was making denim products not only under its own Pointer Brand but also for the designer Junya Watanabe as part of the Comme des Garçons high-end Japanese fashion label. With 50% of the product sales taking place in Japan, L.C. King began to look a lot less like a victim of Asian commerce and more like a “Made in America” victor.
Under Ben Collin’s marketing direction, the company also was planning a series of roots rock recordings in conjunction with the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion and Live and Breathing – a film production company that documents live performances and makes them available online. In celebration of L.C. King’s 100 year anniversary, major artists in the Americana genre like Deer Tick and J.D. McPherson set up gear on the factory’s second floor and jammed out surrounded by sewing machines.
Around that same time Cathy Horyn, then fashion critic of The New York Times, caught wind of L.C. King’s scrappy resilience and made a road trip to Bristol, TN to see the company in action. The subsequent article, “A Tennessee Clothing Factory Keeps Up the Old Ways” ran in August 2013 and L.C. King has been riding the publicity momentum ever since.
On The Edge
Hinman left L.C. King after his four-month gig, assured that he was both a bona fide storyteller as well as a real artist. Beyond that, though, he had a new appreciation for what makes a great creator-in-residence experience. “Its about effort, not vacation. It is about work and pushing the edges of that work. When I think about residency opportunities on big corporate campuses, it is kind of like a formal graduate program where you’re getting all the bells and whistles," Hinman said. "That’s fine but where are the moments for pushing forward through solitude and, even, boredom? Where is the opportunity for the “aha!” moment? Where is the chance for the realization of failure and the running out of good ideas?”
His time on the glacier, in the desert and in the factory – these were what Hinman calls “edge environments” that provided the space, time and beyond-the-ordinary inspiration which let him progress. “Edge environments are non-traditional spaces for residency and they may provide more of what’s really needed,” he said.
The edges are getting sharper and more diverse. According to the AAC’s Flannery Patton, “More than just corporate settings have residencies now. There’s a residency that can be done in the middle of Times Square and another on cargo ships. There’s even one in the Arctic Circle.” In Seattle, there’s an artist-in-residence sitting in one of the towers of the Fremont drawbridge.
The world of residencies also extends far beyond visual arts and includes writers, comedians, makers, musicians and craftsman. A few years back, Intel signed Black-eyed Peas frontman, Will.i.am, as it "director of creative innovation" and Polaroid touted Lady Gaga as its "creative director." But those may be better examples of corporate PR frivolity than of embedded creative provocateurs meant to push the innovation envelope. They would have been smarter to bring in Banksy.
Moving The Middle...And The Fringe
Regardless, it remains difficult to identify small and mid-size businesses bringing artists into their folds. According to the National Center for the Middle Market, “With revenues between $10MM and $1B, the nearly 200,000 companies that comprise the U.S. middle market encompass 44.5 million jobs, account for one third of total private employment, and generate more than $10 trillion in combined revenues annually.” However, a recent study by the same organization showed that the middle market is far more conservative than other sectors when it comes to innovation. How does innovation get championed in the no-man's zone of companies that are too big for the start-up innovation incubator scene and too small to have an R&D budget, no less funds for an artistic intervention residency?
Finding the next L.C. King feels like a needle-in-haystack challenge.
Coming up next:
Creators-in-Residence 2.0 | Improbable Connections – a profile of intermediaries helping underserved small and mid-sized organizations get the innovation boosting benefit of artistic interventions. Plus, Hinman’s newest gig.
Creators-in-Residence 3.0 | Trading Places – what happens when a senior executive becomes a maker-in-residence? And, other art| business switcheroos.