Art in the Office: A conversation with Judy Sherman

Office repositioning projects abound in DC, and clients and designers alike are consistently challenged to identify new ways of differentiating properties within the region’s competitive landscape. One such project is our recently opened 1325 G Street project, where the Hickok Cole design team incorporated a sculptural fireplace and selective artwork to create a dramatic and memorable lobby experience for both building tenants and pedestrian passersby. This got us thinking about the unique role that artwork and installations play in transforming what has often been a “pass through” space into a place people actually use and want to linger.

To learn more, Hickok Cole’s Mercedes Afshar sat down with j fine arts Principal, Judy Sherman, to discuss the connection she draws between art and its place in the corporate world – and how as an art consultant and collector she works with her clients and their design teams to invigorate spaces with art, and find just the right piece to bring their vision and story to life.

Mercedes Afshar speaks with j fine arts Principal, Judy Sherman, at Hickok Cole’s newly repositioned 1325 G Street project in Northwest DC.

How did you start your career as an art consultant?

I always loved art, and knew I would pursue it once my children were older. Within four months of my daughter getting her driver’s license and my son going to college, I started as an art consultant. Two years later I struck out on my own, and my first call came from an architect asking if I wanted to do a law firm. I took a deep breath and said, “sure.”

I got my masters in labor law, but never picked up a law book again after that. Because I had studied hotel and hospitality law, I really understood both the hospitality side and the business side of the project. I spoke the language, and understood that the client wouldn’t want to select pieces just because they matched – there had to be a reason behind the piece.

Art is so subjective. How do you ensure that you’re matching the right pieces with the right client and space?

For me, each project is like a passion project. There is always something unique about it – whether it’s the client or the space. I’ve been fortunate to have had a few dream projects where both the art and the client are really special and it all just comes together in the perfect way. That’s what defines a dream project for me.

What I like is different then what I would place for a client. I don’t come in with preconceived notions or my own personal agenda. It’s not my story – I act almost like a matchmaker. I start by talking with my clients and asking them about their story and what story they want their art to tell. I get to know their brand and their mission, who will be coming through the space, and how they want people to act and feel in the space.

Random selection is never the case anymore – the art is a part of the storytelling and that’s why communication is so key. You really have to process what resonates with them. I hear what my clients say, and then ask myself what artists can I put together to match their vision. There isn’t one right answer, and they need to make the final decision. My role is to act as their guide because they may not have been through this process before.

Do clients come to you with a specific piece of art or artist in mind?

Often not – and that is about guiding the conversation, asking the right questions and uncovering what will speak to people in the space. What happens more often is a client comes in with an existing collection wondering what will work in the new space. There are some pieces that we can repurpose, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. If it’s important – like if the piece was commissioned or has meaning to their employees, visitors or C-level people – we will reframe it so it fits in the space. Otherwise it will stand out, and not in the way they want it to.

A big part of telling a client’s story is the reason behind their selections – the why. They may not have a specific artist in mind, but could want to focus on local artists or emerging artists as a part of that larger story. For emerging artists, I like to go to different schools and get to know the students. They are all just so passionate and grateful that people are looking at their work, and I’ve found some pretty amazing talents.

I keep a pulse on the local DC art scene through events like Hickok Cole’s Art Night, and by serving on Washington Project for the Arts’ executive committee. I travel and go to shows like Art Basel in Miami, and was actually just in Japan and Australia seeing what the art is like there by exploring museums and lobbies.

We’ve been doing a number of lobby art installations in our recent office repositioning projects – like the one we’re sitting in right now! In your opinion, how does art selection fit into the lobby design process?

Lobbies are amazing and have so much potential that is often not met. Someone designs the lobby, and then someone else comes in and puts up their art – that’s not organic. Bringing someone like me on board early in the design process, as a part of the design process, keeps the art – and the budget to support it – from becoming an afterthought.

Recently I’ve been doing more commissioned art because spaces are so unique, and lobbies are by far the most difficult. With a lobby you have to take into consideration all the potential audiences who will be coming through the space. There are so many players you are trying engage with and please – the developer, owner, and design team – but you’re not necessarily interacting with the tenants who are going to be living in the space. Oftentimes a building owner or developer will have to get permission to show it to the tenants in order to ensure it pleases and resonates with everyone.

Sometimes the client doesn’t understand the importance of the art until the project is done and the walls are empty. But many of my larger corporate clients bring me in early, and then everything evolves organically and just works.

How has technology changed the way your clients are interacting with the art you place?

Tech is great for me because I can compile pieces and send them to a client to get gut reactions. I have not placed digital art, but I know there are spaces that use monitors to showcase images. The biggest impact has been through social media, and how it allows the people around the art world to connect, especially Instagram. Sharing the art and the process on social media makes the client look cool, increases visibility for the artist, and helps the client and artists build and maintain real relationships. Who doesn’t want to meet an artist? They’re like rock stars, and the clients love it. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Want to talk art and office repositioning? Reach out to the experts at Hickok Cole, and be sure to check out our latest lobby transformation at 1325 G Street.

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