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In the late 1940s, when many of Washington’s home-grown law firms were beginning to blossom, the idea of an art collection often involved paintings of hunting scenes or even dogs playing poker. Sixty years later, firms have become sophisticated art collectors. Today, visitors to D.C. firms are more likely to see the works of famous artists like glass master Dale Chihuly, pop-art icon Andy Warhol, and Washington Color School artist Sam Gilliam than a framed oil of a sailboat racing across the ocean. Whether it’s because firms are trying to create a particular image for clients or make the environment more pleasant for their own attorneys, many have built an impressive arsenal of art. “It’s more the norm now. When I went into business I had to convince them that they needed it,” says Jean Efron, who has been a Washington-based art consultant for more than 30 years. “Early on, it took a partner who was really interested [in art] to get the ball rolling.” Since then, many firms have set up formal “art committees” and hired consultants to augment the art they already have or put together proposals for streamlining and updating their collections as they move into new quarters. “We use artwork to really bring life to the space,” says Frank “Rusty” Connor, head of Alston & Bird‘s Washington office, which just relocated to the historic Atlantic Building. But having a signature art collection wasn’t always a top priority for D.C. law firms. In fact, no matter how much money law firms were making, spending it on art was controversial 30 years ago. BEYOND THE ORIENTAL RUGS Covington & Burling and Arnold & Porter were two of the earliest Washington firms to invest in art. Covington’s collection was started by founding partner Jay Harry Covington II. Covington bought the engravings, Oriental rugs, and clocks that adorned the firm’s office in the Union Trust Building in the 1950s. But moving beyond more conservative decorations took D.C. firms almost two decades. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Arnold & Porter, one of the first law firms in the city to seriously collect art, started its collection in earnest. The firm, then situated on M Street Northwest, in a series of row houses, hired art consultants to invest primarily in Washington-based artists. It’s a trend that many D.C. firms have since followed. “We really wanted the art to make a statement,” says James Fitzpatrick, a senior partner who heads Arnold & Porter’s art committee. “It distinguishes a firm that before might have had Civil War prints on the wall.” In particular, Arnold & Porter sought out Washington Color School artists for large-scale works. The school of abstract art, which grew in Washington beginning in the 1960s, made artists including Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis hot commodities. Today, Tom Downing’s “Grid #12 Cernac” and Davis’ “Star of India” are among the large works that hang in the firm’s conference room. Since then, Arnold & Porter has supplemented its art collection by adding sculpture pieces by Charles Arnoldi and William Christenberry’s famous “Cola Wall,” a multimedia collage of marketing memorabilia from Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. (The firm lent out Christenberry’s piece to the Phillips Collection for an exhibit.) “Each law firm really has a personality of its own,” says Annie Gawlak, director of G Fine Art Gallery and an art consultant who works with Arnold & Porter. “Through a process of discovery you usually come up with some reason for collecting what you are collecting, not necessarily a theme, but something that allows you to have some direction.” Covington began seriously collecting in the early 1980s with the help of former partner Eugene Ludwig. An art aficionado and collector in his own right, Ludwig introduced contemporary works by Washington-based artists to offer a contrast to the more traditional series of engravings in the hallways. His influence on the collection can be seen on the firm’s 11th floor, where Sam Gilliam’s 1981 “Corner Caberat,” a layered collage of painted canvases splashed with bright blues and reds, faces Gene Davis’ 1981 “Jungle Jim,” a large-scale painting showcasing a series of vertical multicolored stripes. After Ludwig left the firm, Covington hired Gawlak to build up the collection. Since then, she’s increased the number of works on paper and introduced contemporary artists such as David Shapiro, David Hockney, and Judy Pfaff. Most recently, Covington commissioned a large-scale piece by emerging artist Maggie Michael. The work, which hangs on the firm’s 12th floor, is a series of five Plexiglas panels over which latex paint in autumnal colors was poured. When firms first started collecting “fine art,” lawyers say it was a hard sell to designate money on what was deemed an extravagance in times of tight budgets. Instead of trying to create a separate line item in the budget when Arnold & Porter began its collection, the art committee increased the overall “furnishings” budget and started to purchase works. “We looked for pieces we could get under $10,000,” says Fitzpatrick. “I think the cost-benefit ratio is quite good.” Arnold & Porter was hardly alone with its art-budget issues. Today even the most successful firms don’t want an art collection so ostentatious it could potentially make a client wonder just how much money the firm is raking in. Take Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The firm’s D.C. office grossed $243 million last year, but the most expensive artworks in its collection cost around $10,000. (In general, firms can start at $35,000 and pay more than $100,000 for a work by a major international artist.) Instead the firm has used creativity to control costs, by investing, for instance, primarily in drawings and paintings on paper, photographs, or a series by a single artist. On many of the long hallways, the firm has used framed covers of old New Yorker magazines. In the office cafeteria, attorneys and staff are encouraged to showcase their work. The firm changes those “exhibitions” frequently, including an annual photo display of employees’ children who attend the firm’s Halloween and holiday parties. “We agreed not to spend a lot of money,” says Barbara Perry, Skadden’s office administrator. “Most of the pieces are not more than $2,000.” Perry chose mostly abstract contemporary art for the firm’s conference rooms, leaning toward geometric patterns and emerging artists, including Robert Mangold, David Shapiro, and Ellen Feinberg, to stay within budget. As newer firms joined the Washington market, they too were looking to invest in art. After breaking off from Jones Day in 1979, Crowell & Moring lawyers were trying to set themselves apart from their former colleagues. One example: The firm nicknamed its conference room “the playroom” and decorated it in bold primary colors, in an attempt to show that the firm didn’t take itself too seriously. The firm wanted to have art but at reasonable prices. To do that, it focused on works on paper and photographs, according to Kent Morrison, a Crowell partner. At the time, no work cost more than $500. “It’s a sign to clients that it’s a nice space, but something within reason,” says Morrison, a partner on the firm’s art committee. “Cheap isn’t quite the word, but frugal.” Crowell’s collection was largely influenced by founding partner Eldon “Took” Crowell. Not only was Crowell intimately involved in picking out art in Washington, but he also picked up artifacts for the firm during his travels around the world. For instance, during a visit to Australia more than 20 years ago, Crowell found the looming, six-foot “Straw Man of Sepik” folk-art piece from Papua New Guinea, which is displayed along one wall of the firm’s law library. Morrison jokes that the wood-and-straw piece is used to “scare young lawyers” who may be in the stacks late at night. TIME TO MOVE ON A combination of choices made by partners who were novices in picking art, budget constraints, and the changing style of law firm offices means that firms have made a misstep or two in their art collections. Committees often re-evaluate collections and try to shed dated pieces when remodeling or moving into new space. “After you do an appraisal of the previous collection you ask, Do we build on this, tighten it up, donate some of these things, or resell some of the work?” says Gawlak. For example, before its move into a new space (scheduled for July 10), Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky art committee partners and art consultant Gawlak rated its art collection, choosing which signature pieces — such as the Chihuly it bought in 1995 — the firm would keep and which of the 100 pieces in the D.C. and New York offices it would auction off within the firm. Angelo Arcadipane, former managing partner of Dickstein and partner in charge of the firm’s move, says the firm plans on “whittling” its collection in half. “We’ve made some mistakes,” says Arcadipane. Before merging into Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, Pillsbury’s D.C. office and Shaw Pittman’s New York, Virginia, and Washington offices auctioned off much of their art collections to bring an updated look to the merged firm’s new space. Some of the highest-valued prints included Edward Curtis’ “The North American Indian,” estimated to be worth $17,500, and Peter Loftus’ “Morning Calm,” at $20,000. Just now the firm has formalized its art committee and is starting to work on acquiring art for its new offices. Yet other offices have tried to minimize buying blunders in their collections by concentrating on a specific time period. After initially borrowing works from its headquarters in Atlanta, King & Spalding‘s Washington outpost decided, in 1979, it needed its own art collection. To do that, the firm hired Efron to narrow its scope as well as to move away from the primarily Georgia-focused artists it had been using. “We identified a period that was affordable and we were interested in,” says Theodore Hester, a senior partner at King & Spalding. The firm settled on the works of postwar industrial-period artists, such as Bernice Abbott’s photographs and many pieces depicting laborers, including Hildreth Meiere’s three miniature ceramic panels called “Health and Welfare,” which she created for the contest to do the frieze in the Municipal Center on Indiana Avenue Northwest. Meiere’s entry won. Though King & Spalding decided to move away from its Georgia roots, Alston & Bird used Rita Guest, an Atlanta-based architect designer, to put its collection together after its move to larger office space. Guest bought most of the artwork from Atlanta-based galleries because, she says, it was a cheaper option. But the contemporary works she chose are mostly by New York and D.C. artists. Just as most established firms continue to add to their collections as they expand into new space, newer firms on the scene are just starting to collect. McKee Nelson, formed in 1999, is just starting to invest in art in Washington after building out a new floor in its offices at 20th and M streets. “Initially, we made an investment in people, in recruitment, and building a law firm,” says Jennifer Sabini, spokeswoman for the firm. To help build an art collection, the firm hired Efron, who has been interviewing partners and is expected to meet shortly with the art committee. “To say it’s on the fast track might be an overstatement, but it’s very much alive and happening,” says Sabini of the firm’s move into art collecting. As McKee Nelson may soon find, collecting art for most law firms in Washington never stops.
Anna Palmer can be contacted at [email protected].

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