An ode to an establishment

Rosie Murray-West examines the role of artists in residence and the benefits that their benefactors reap

An ode to an establishment

If it is good enough for the Savoy Hotel, it must be good enough for the rest of us. That might explain the plethora of writers, artists and poets-in-residence that have graced some of the finest of companies in recent years.

But whilst an inky-fingered scribbler is probably glad of a place in your office and a bit of peace and quiet, what is your company getting out of the deal? Apparently, the answer is some culture and, possibly, a change of perspective.

Fay Weldon, author of Life and Loves of A She Devil, was the UK's most famous writer-in-residence. A former advertising executive who first coined the expression 'Go to work on an egg', she understood the power of associating with corporate sponsors.

During 2002, the Savoy Hotel granted Weldon a £350-a-night room and free breakfast while she worked on a book. Pat Carter, then head of public relations at the Savoy, said the company was asking nothing of Weldon but a few appearances at literary lunches and perhaps an 'article or two' for its in-house magazine.

Carter believed that the introduction of an artist in residence built on the Savoy's heritage, as a hotel of choice for many famous people connected with the arts, including Oscar Wilde, Arnold Bennett and Noel Coward.

However, the appointment of an outspoken and controversial feminist author certainly generated plenty of column inches for the hotel - but other companies also claim that finding a home for a less established artist or writer has paid dividends.

Bestselling author Kathy Lette, Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, and Michael Morpurgo, the third Children's Laureate, have succeeded Weldon. Morpurgo was obliged to inspire three literary events during his three month tenure.

Most writers and artists in residence are found in the public sector - often in universities and other seats of learning, as well as prisons and hospitals. Huntly, a town in Aberdeenshire with 4,000 residents, recently welcomed South African artist Senzeni Marasela for a three month stay as artist-in-residence. It is part of an art project, entitled The Town is the Venue. Marasela, who specialises in photography, photocopy transfers and silk screenings, says she plans to work with the women of the town using a dress as a canvas.

CREATIVE INSPIRATION

However, companies have also found that welcoming artists, poets or writers into their businesses can produce a fertile combination.

Some people even make a habit of it. Ian McMillan has been poet in residence for the now departed Northern Spirit trains, Humberside Police (for whom he penned a spirited ditty about how car crime doesn't pay) and, more recently, Barnsley Football Club. Last September, he hosted a 'Words and Whackers' poetry workshop at Barnsley's stadium for children from 12 local primary schools. The resulting collection of football-related poems has been published and distributed to local schools.

According to the Arts Council, which has produced guidelines for writers and artists in residence and helped to place writers and poets in locations as diverse as a tattoo parlour and a law firm, the benefits of mixing the corporate and the creative can be many and varied. 

'Hosting a writer in residence brings significant benefits to an organisation in terms of the creativity writers can inspire and the perspectives they can offer,' a spokesman explains. 'Workshops, readings and performances give staff a valuable insight into the creative process and a rare opportunity to spend time with writers.'

He adds: 'The profile of an organisation may be significantly increased through both internal and public events and publicity.'

Recently Costa Coffee, the chain that sponsors the Costa Book Awards, formerly known as the Whitbread Book awards, decided to take advantage of these benefits by appointing a writer-in-residence. 

The chain picked Davey Spens, who was working on his first novel, called Teach Me to Swim, to sit in its shops and scribble away.

Spens produced a downloadable selection of short stories for Costa, called Frothy Tales, based on his experience writing in the shops. He describes the customers he encounters as like a box of Quality Street chocolates. 

'The Toffee Pennies were the businessmen swapping share prices over their lattés. The Strawberry Delights were the yummy mums with their strollers and shiny red wrappers,' he recalls. 'The punky student by the window looked too much like the green triangle one to be anything else.'

NOT JUST FROTH

Regardless of what Costa customers thought of being described as a box of chocolates, Kevin Hyder, marketing manager, insists the project has enhanced the Costa brand.

'Costa has been involved with literature since 2005, when it took over the book awards from Whitbread,' he explains. 'We needed to find ways to engage the public in this.'

He adds that when the company decided to engage a writer in residence it was 'not in a glamorous sense' - meaning that the company had not wanted an established writer to enhance the brand. 'We wanted someone who was writing his or her first novel,' he says. 'We wanted to give them the freedom of our stores to give them an opportunity and help and support them while they were working.'

Spens was given a card to use at Costa stores to spend on whatever food and drink he wanted while he was writing - up to a certain limit. Hyder believes Frothy Tales, which has been on sale in the coffee shops as well as downloadable from the Internet, has given something different to customers.

'We've been able to give them reading alternatives,' he explains. 'Frothy Tales has interested and challenged them - they are always demanding newspapers and technology and this gave people a break from news and daily drudgery. This opportunity for people to delve into the world of fiction in our stores has added value to our brand.'

FUTURE TOASTS

Other companies have turned to the visual arts to add a little colour to their marketing. Glenfiddich, the Scotch malt whisky group, runs an artist-in-residence programme every year. The programme fosters international links by inviting eight artists to come to live for three months in Scotland. Many of these artists come from areas where the population is just starting to discover whisky, such as China's Jin Feng, who described Glenfiddich as 'magic'.

However, it is Canadian artist David Dyment who has generated the most column inches for the company from the latest batch of artists, by producing a piece of art called A Drink To Us (When We're Both Dead) last December. The piece consists of 25 empty bottles, with a promise that they will be filled in 2108 from a keg recently buried in Warehouse 8 at Glenfiddich Distilleries.

'The whisky itself will be the ultimate gift, a whisky that the buyer will never taste, but will pass on.' Dyment says. 'My project (the burial of a barrel of whisky for 100 years) required the expertise of a wide range of Distillery staff, all of whom gave up their time without reservation. I consider the project a collaboration, and am honoured to have been given the opportunity to work alongside them.'

The limited edition whisky is being pre-sold now at the Toronto Art Fair for C$2,000 (£1,170) a bottle, even though it will not be available to drink for 100 years. Buyers receive an extruded wood casket housed in a linen box, a map of the warehouse, a small diary documenting the process and a contract to pass onto their descendants, allowing them to collect the whisky in the next century. 

ARTISTIC LICENCE

Less flamboyantly, law firm DLA Piper in Liverpool also appointed an artist-in-residence. Julia Midgeley spent 18 months either at DLA's offices or documenting the new art and design academy at Liverpool John Moores University.

The works that she produced for the law firm give a snapshot of everyday life within the working environment. Midgeley's pictures feature lawyers hunched over computers, and document the life of Graeme in the post room. There are also pictures featuring the reception desk, Mark and Tony in the facilities department, and offices strewn with paper and legal briefs.

The law firm used Midgeley's residency to highlight its involvement in both the arts and the regeneration of Liverpool. It also sponsors an art collection in Tate Liverpool.

Stephanie Byrne, marketing manager at DLA Piper, says the law firm has 35 of the images hung on the walls of the office, mainly in areas that can be seen by clients. 'The rest of the drawings will be offered for sale to staff and clients at a private view event we are holding,' she explains.

However, the presence of an artist-in-residence had even more effect on office culture, with staff first dreading and then enjoying the keen observations of their visiting artist. Philip Rooney, managing partner in the Liverpool office, believes Midgeley's involvement 'brought a refreshing air of creativity to the regular office environment'.

He adds: 'Colleagues throughout the office have been transformed from reluctant models to keen subjects of the drawings.'

BEDTIME READING

Perhaps in homage to Weldon, another hotel recently picked up the baton with a different kind of literary experience. Andaz in London's Liverpool Street offered the world's first ever reader-in-residence last year in the form of Times' journalist Damian Barr.

Barr's duties included reading aloud to guests (who chose what they wanted him to read from a special book menu), going to lunch with them to discuss books and giving them 'bibliotherapy', which is apparently diagnosing reading needs and prescribing some appropriate material. 

Barr, who did agree to wear pyjamas for his two-week stint, had just three self-imposed rules. He would not stay in a guest's room for more than an hour. He would not sit on their beds. And he would positively not do any voices!

However, on one occasion Barr did get under the covers (duvet that is, not book). To round off his three-month residency, Barr hosted a read-in, in the spirit of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's famous lie in, at the hotel's pub but possibly such a departing gift is less appropriate for a law firm!