As the COVID-19 pandemic passed the one-year mark, officials at Commerce Bank wanted to find a way to highlight what mattered most to people in the communities where they operate.
Doug Neff, chairperson and CEO of Commerce Bank’s Southwest Missouri Region, said the idea started percolating earlier in the pandemic, but the timing wasn’t right.
“At Commerce, we have our own internal saying that we focus on what matters most. There’s a lot of things that happen in people’s lives every day that we help them with,” Neff said. “Last year, we started talking about this, but it didn’t feel like a very good time to go ahead with it. We decided we were far enough into the pandemic that it was a good time to start to tell that story.”
The result is an online-only art exhibition launched in late April titled, “What Matters Most,” a commissioned art collection in response to the theme of what matters most and what inspires artists during this unprecedented period.
“We thought this might be a good way to allow artists to tell a story that would be interesting and, in a big regard, provide hope,” Neff said. “It’s around what matters to individuals. If you look at the art that was commissioned, it really tells a story about how COVID and this unfortunate 18 months has affected people’s lives.”
The art of recovery
Commerce Bank selected eight of its largest markets to be represented in the gallery: Columbia, Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis in Missouri; Wichita, Kansas; Peoria, Illinois; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Denver, Colorado.
In each city, the bank partnered with local arts-focused organizations to find artists and represent diverse communities, Neff said.
In Springfield, Commerce Bank partnered with the Springfield Regional Arts Council to find an artist who both organizations felt would be able to meet the prompt and complete a piece in the desired time.
Leslie Forrester, executive director of SRAC, said the organization looked at its registry of artists, who pay $25 a year for membership. The timeline given by Commerce Bank was short for creation of an art piece – at about two weeks, requiring a quicker art medium.
“We really focused in on artists in that graphic realm that could work digitally rather than somebody who works in a more tangible medium,” Forrester said. “It’s hard to fire a piece of clay and have that ready or for an oil painting to dry enough that you can do all the layers.”
Ultimately, artist Andie Bottrell was selected to represent Springfield in the exhibit. Her digitally created piece titled, “What Matters Most is in This Room,” highlights how priorities have shifted over the last year.
The piece features a family in their home, but one of the parents is replaced with a void of stars to represent the collective loss many have faced due to the pandemic, Bottrell wrote in the piece’s description. A calendar hanging behind the family is filled out to represent what the world has looked like over the last year – canceled events, no school, funerals and doctors’ appointments. Other artists featured in the exhibit and the partnership organizations from their cities are Adrienne Luther, Columbia Art League; Stevon Lucero, Chicano Humanities & Arts Council (Denver); Vanessa Argueta, Kansas City Artists Coalition; Kris Kanaly, Allied Arts (Oklahoma City); Lori Luthy, Peoria Art Guild; Janessa Williams, Painted Black STL; and Paris Cunningham, Kansas African American Museum (Wichita).
Artists selected for the exhibit were paid for their art, and the partnership organizations were compensated for their roles as well, although Neff declined to disclose financials of the project. The artists can keep their pieces to sell or reproduce, if desired.
Forrester said a focus on the arts is more important than ever as the world tries to recover from the pandemic. Ensuring arts are part of the conversation is crucial, she said. Nationally, arts and culture made up 4.3% of the gross domestic product in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Pre-pandemic, the arts locally were generating about $26 million in economic impact, Forrester said.
“As we’re talking about helping our community recover, the arts are a part of that. We want to support all of our business community, and it’s all pieces of the same puzzle,” Forrester said.
Neff said Commerce Bank has no set plans for future art exhibitions, but the company will continue to support the arts and local communities.
“We’re really concerned about how to help people and how to help our clients and how to help our communities, and this focus on what matters to them is really important for us,” Neff said. “We want to see people thrive.”
Corporate Art Program
Although the partnership with Commerce Bank was something new, working to incorporate local art into the business world is not a novel concept for SRAC.
In 2017, the council revamped its Corporate Art Program, which aims to pair local businesses with artists in the SRAC membership to display local art in office spaces, said program coordinator Avery Parrish.
Businesses interested in displaying local artwork work with Parrish to select pieces created by artists in the program’s catalogue, then find what works best for their personal style, budget and available space.
“The arts council really tries to step in as a partner to artists to help them fulfill their needs in terms of how to put together a gallery show, as well as fit the needs of the business of making a beautiful space the community loves,” Parrish said. “We try to be the bridge that brings those two components together.”
Businesses sign a lease agreement for the art with SRAC, which is determined by the size and amount of art chosen. Prices are set by the artists, and 75% of the lease fee goes to them, with SRAC keeping 25%.
“It’s a lot about practicing what local businesses preach. Local businesses have the opportunity but also the advantage of really getting to be near the people they serve and really getting to know the people they serve,” Parrish said.
“When businesses take advantage of using local art, and creating an identity with local art, it furthers them proving the point of why they’re successful in business.”
Since relaunching in 2017, the Corporate Art Program has grown from 34 artists to over 60 included in its latest catalog. Current participating businesses include The Center for Plastic Surgery, Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, USA Mortgage and Legacy Bank and Trust Co.
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