Cultivating Art, Not Argument, at a Los Angeles Law Firm

Much of what is done in law firms is tedious business instruments: contracts, loan agreements, multi-page memoranda.

But this year, law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan ceded office space overlooking the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles to artistic creation.

On the sixth floor, the works in progress of Molly Segal, 38, a mid-career artist whose work focuses on themes such as decay and regeneration, are stacked three or four depths against the wall.

“Never in my life had I expected to have an office nearby,” Segal said.

One floor down, Edgar Ramirez, 32, a painter who focuses on themes like business and work, creates stencils on cardboard canvases, using text from real estate traffic signs he finds in the car from the suburbs.

“Having the space gives me the freedom to work at a slower pace,” said Ramirez, a recent graduate of ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

Both artists are part of the company’s new Artist-in-Residence program, the brainchild of one of the company’s founding partners, John B. Quinn, an art lover who has completed much of the company’s seven floors of offices with contemporary works from its own collection.

Quinn draws parallels between the creativity of artists and that of his own litigators.

“Artists are the antenna of the human race,” he said in an interview. “They tell us what is going on, what we cannot yet perceive.”

For their sponsors, artist residences have a little cachet, marking places as fertile incubators of ideas. For artists, they provide contact with new people and new environments in a way that stimulates creativity. And they often offer two things that are always welcome: space and money.

For the four months of their residency, currently underway, the law firm gives Segal and Ramirez $ 1,500 for artist materials and $ 5,000 per month, a nice stipend even if it only matches what A partner in a high-end firm can invoice in a day. .

Although museums and other institutions have offered artist-in-residence programs for decades, law firms have traditionally not been sponsors, although Columbia Law School has welcomed its first resident artist, Bayeté Ross Smith, this year.

On the other side of the sponsorship spectrum is the New York City Sanitation Department, which has had an artist in residence for over 40 years.

Current resident artist, sTo Len, 43, started in September and is receiving space for a studio inside the department’s central repair shop in Queens.

Len uses art to deal with the consequences of industrialization, such as pollution, and was recently an artist in residence for a wastewater treatment plant in Virginia. He said he’s still looking for the type of job he could do, but said he recently enjoyed a garbage truck ride through SoHo at 5:30 a.m. – “to see the drill.”

“For me, it’s about getting a behind-the-scenes pass into the inner workings of the city,” he said.

The department’s program was started in the 1970s by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, an artist who remained in an unpaid position. Ukeles wanted to elevate the often unrecognized work stature of sanitation workers, or mothers, to that of art. For her perhaps most famous work, “Touch Sanitation Performance,” she visited about 8,500 sanitation workers for 11 months during the New York tax crisis.

“I faced each person individually – for example, at 6 a.m. or in a truck as they waited to empty their payload at the sea transfer station” – to shake their hands and say, “Thank you. for keeping NYC alive, ”she said. noted.

The Department of Cultural Affairs, building on Ukeles’ example, created a more formal artist residency program in 2015 that sponsors three artists this year, including Len, and pays them $ 40,000 for work on a minimum of one year. Melanie Crean is an artist who works with the city’s design and construction department while Kameron Neal resides in the archives and information services department.

Gonzalo Casals, New York’s cultural affairs commissioner, said artists help communicate to the public what agencies are doing. “It’s a background that artists have – it’s thinking, perspective, creativity,” he said. “This unique perspective, the problem-solving approach, but also the quality of the art. It makes us human.

Pieces created by two New York City resident artists have found their way into museum collections: works from a series by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya (pronounced PING-bodee-bak-ee-ah), which was in partnership with the city’s Human Rights Commission, were acquired by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and works in a series by Julia Weist, which was part of the Department of Archives and Information Services, were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and other institutions.

In Los Angeles, Quinn said he was planning to create the residence, in part, when the pandemic emptied the company’s offices. So while many of the firm’s 400 or so lawyers and support staff in Los Angeles work remotely from their homes, he and curator Alexis Hyde, hired by the firm to lead the project, have ceded two offices to Segal. and Ramirez for the four months. residence.

(They have received 142 applications for the first residencies, which end next month. They will announce who will take the next residencies in January; they plan to continue the program until at least 2022.)

“Alexis and I came up with this idea, wouldn’t it be cool if we had artists working here, and the people in the company could see them working and coming anytime and taking inspiration from the creation in progress”, Quinn said.

Until the residency arrived, Segal sometimes shared spaces with 11 or 12 other artists, and his most recent studio in LA’s Arts District overlooked a dumpster. Ramirez worked in his parents’ garage in Torrance on the South Bay.

“A residence like this makes sense,” he said. “It helps you grow. Other artists do not have this support with space and financially. I have never had this support and I am grateful every day.

The artists’ work will be shown in January in a pop-up exhibition downtown, the company said. Quinn promised to present them to his industry contacts, and he said he would purchase at least one work from each artist for his collection.

Quinn comes by at least once a week when he’s in town to see the artists. Segal said one of the company’s secretaries, Albert, came a few times a week to see what she was working on and asked her how it was going.

While interaction with their office colleagues during the pandemic was limited, the environment nonetheless influences the work of artists. Segal said the sight of cranes and skyscrapers stretching out to the horizon means that the visual themes of his work now feature more built structures and his work has become more vertical.

When she applied for residency, Segal feared the judges would challenge some of her interests. “A lot of my work involved orgies,” she said. She was worried that the judges would say, “We like orgies, but this is an office. Do you think you can do a job that isn’t about group sex? “

But lawyers don’t place any restrictions on what artists create. Some of the new works from his office / studio feature birds in silhouette and a water park.

Ramirez, who hadn’t spent a lot of time downtown because “parking was too expensive,” takes inspiration from the contrast he sees on his way to the studio on a daily basis. He travels through some disadvantaged neighborhoods and is interested in signs he saw targeting the poor, urging them to sell their homes or take out loans, signs he considered predatory.

He ripped them off and took them with him, bringing the reality of the streets to an office tower whose tenants, he imagines, rarely see such signs.

Ramirez makes them watch.

“I wonder, do they care? ” he said. “I was wondering how to approach this with someone on the opposite side of the spectrum, especially financially.”

He expects the conclusions he draws will illuminate the art he creates among them.

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Mary Moser

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