Recently in   -- ARCO Corporate Collection Category

I'm continually amazed at the responses stimulated by some of the things I post on the Gazette, and nothing has surprised me more than the number of folks interested in the Atlantic Richfield Company's (ARCO) Corporate artwork collection. Two decades after ARCO was assimilated by and subsumed into BP (affectionately known as The Borg by we who are completely over it), I'm still getting regular inquiries from folks wanting to know if I can provide either an identification of or additional information about a piece of artwork they've acquired and which carries an Atlantic Richfield identifier. (I almost never can, by the way. Most of these inquiries come from the West Coast or the Chicago area, and all of my information relates to the Midland offices.)

I also get notes like this one that came to my inbox a couple of days ago.
Hi Eric,
I came across your blog and really enjoyed reading about the history of ARCO's art collection. I found your writing as I was doing research on a corporate art collection we are offering for auction that came in from TXU Energy here in Dallas.
 
Once we got all the art to the gallery, we found ARCO labels on everything. I hope you'll enjoy taking a look at everything we have in the collection--it will all be sold at auction November 17th. Please let me know if you have any questions--we'd be thrilled for you to include this update and then the auction results in your blog.
 
Here is the link for the full auction:
 
Here is a listing of everything from the ARCO/TXU collection:
 
Best,
Katy Alexander
Dallas Auction Gallery
214-688-5801
I agreed to help them publicize the auction since it ties closely with the running theme of previous ARCO artwork posts on the Gazette.

A little history is in order. ARCO spent almost $200 million to build a 48 story tower -- designed by I.M. Pei -- in downtown Dallas to house the headquarters staff for its ARCO Oil & Gas operating company (AOGC). In 1994, AOGC was split into four operating units, and the tower was sold to Texas Utilities (later TXU) for a reported $29 million. Apparently, some of the artwork in the tower was included in the sale, and some or all of those pieces are now in this auction.

The second link in Katy's email above is a bit misleading. There are 51 pieces listed on the auction page, but I went through the descriptions of each of them and only 42 refer to the ARCO connection. I've compiled a list of the lot numbers that explicitly reference ARCO as the source of the piece. [Update (11/7): Katy informed me that they believe that all of the pieces originated with ARCO, but some may have lost their labels over the years. I have no reason to doubt that, but, as they say, caveat emptor.]

0037 0038 0039 0040 0053 0054
0077 0078 0079 0080 0081 0082
0083 0105 0106 0107 0108 0109
0111 0112 0125 0126 0128 0130
0131 0152 0153 0154 0155 0156
0157 0158 0159 0160 0164 0177
0178 0179 0180 0220 0234 0235

The artist most often represented in this collection is Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), an American artist known for his conceptual and minimalistic works. Clyde Connell (1991-1998) is also represented by several pieces; she was generally known as a sculptor but the artwork here is ink on paper.

The estimated values (auction house estimates) for these pieces range from $300 to $15,000 (the latter being for Lots 0157 and 0158, both being 20-piece sets of framed serigraphs by LeWitt. 

Image of Herbert Bayer's tapestry entitled 'Event'
Herbert Bayer tapestry - "Event" (1980) - 60"w x 61"h
Image via Live Auctioneers, Dallas, Texas

For me personally, the most interesting piece is Lot 0161, a 1980 framed tapestry (shown above) by Bauhaus student/teacher and prolific artist Herbert Bayer (1900-1985). It's not described as being from ARCO's collection, although we know that ARCO did have quite a few pieces by Bayer in various offices, and he worked closely with ARCO's curators when they were building the corporate collection.

If you're an ARCO (or TXU) alumnus or simply interested in art, you should peruse this collection. Who knows? You, too, could end up with a piece of American corporate history!

[Note: This post was made as a courtesy -- in addition to being something of personal interest to me -- and there is no commercial relationship or financial consideration whatsoever between the Fire Ant Gazette and Live Auctioneers. The Gazette does not accept paid advertising or unsolicited guest articles.]
One of the gratifying aspects of blogging is hearing from people who want to know more about something I've written. And nothing has generated more such contacts than the posts I've made about Atlantic Richfield Company's corporate art collection. It's been twenty years since ARCO was swallowed up by BP Amoco (now just BP), and five years since I first blogged about ARCO's extensive collection of artwork, but I regularly get email from people who are seeking additional information about pieces that they believe were once in that collection -- or, even better, offering additional information about that artwork.

If you're just now tuning in, you can find the original articles about the artwork here (May, 2015) and here (October, 2016).

Last week I received an email from someone that fell into that latter category. I have that person's permission to share it.

Hi Eric-

I commented on one of your blog posts, but I thought I should email you as well.

I have some photographs you may be interested in.  After I earned my photography degree in 1983, I worked as a darkroom tech in Schaumburg, Illinois, processing film and producing prints for corporations and pro photographers.

One of our clients was ARCO.  I spent a -lot- of time producing 8x10 prints and duplicate transparencies of pieces in their collection.  I saved every proof of every piece I liked.

I still have them.  

I suspect you may be interested in seeing them!  Mostly sculptures -- I don't recall doing any two dimensional pieces, but it was a long time ago.  I'll dig the boxes out today.

Thank you for the illuminating blog posts!.  I was always curious about ARCO's collection -- and its disposition.  Thanks goes to the synchronicity of the Internet- I only found your blog because I learned that a friend, Arthur Ganson, sold a number of his sculptures to William Louis-Dreyfus (Julia's dad), who was a huge outsider art collector.

At that moment, I realized that I had never Googled the term "ARCO art collection"- well!  Here we are.  

John Lovaas
Woodstock, Illinois

Well, as you might expect, my curiosity was piqued and I was indeed interested in running down this new trail. John and I exchanged a series of emails and a few days ago ten high resolution scans of artwork photography appeared in my inbox. John had done what he promised; it was time for me to get to work.

The first item of business was to nail down the nature of the ARCO location where the artwork resided. I knew nothing about any offices in the Chicago area, and I came up empty trying to find a reference to a Chicago-based operation. So I crowd-sourced the research. 

There's a Facebook group composed of former ARCO employees who worked in the Dallas headquarters of what eventually became ARCO Oil and Gas Company. I posed the question to that group, and one of my former co-workers (supervisor, to be exact) came up with a link to this 1984 notice from UPI. The announcement of the move of Anaconda Industries, which ARCO acquired, to Rolling Meadows, Illinois. This seemed to answer the question...except...

John's work on the photos took place in 1983, before the above-referenced move to Rolling Meadows. Plus -- and this is the biggie -- Rolling Meadows is northwest of Chicago, and John clearly remembers the ARCO client being located on the south side. So much for crowd sourcing.

Fortunately, John came up with his own research in the form of this 1987 Chicago Tribune article documenting the reopening of an ARCO research facility in Harvey, Illinois. That in turn led me to this FOIA request that references the former location of an ARCO Chemical research facility in Harvey. In addition, a couple of other former ARCO employees chimed in with firsthand knowledge regarding the Harvey facility. So, absent any additional information to the contrary, I'm going to assume that the artwork shown below was at one time located at that facility. 

Sure, it's not important in the grand scheme of things, but we're all about accuracy here at the Gazette, even if we have to make it up.

Having established the "where," I then set out to try to clarify the "what"...i.e. the backgrounds of the pieces for which John has provided the images shown below. Because of the nature of his work -- making prints and duplicate transparencies from the original transparencies provided by ARCO -- there was no identifying information. Of course, the artwork speaks for itself, but I suspect many of us find our enjoyment enhanced by knowing something about the piece and its creator.

I turned first to the Tineye reverse image search service. If you're unfamiliar with this fascinating (and free) resource, it allows you to upload an image and then it searches to see where else it might appear online. As of this writing, it's cataloged 42 billion images. I've used it sparingly in the past to see if anyone has "borrowed" photos that I've used in my blog posts.

I used Tineye to search for matches on the ten images provided by John. I wasn't optimistic...and my realism paid off, as there were only two matches. But both of those matches led to resources that helped me learn more about the artwork.

For the remainder, I did sleuthing based on the artist's name, where I could make it out. I also reviewed literally hundreds of images associated with each artist via Google searches. In the end, only three of the ten pieces remain unidentified. My hope is that someone someday might run across this post, recognize one of the mystery pieces, and share some information about it.

Based on my research, it would not be an exaggeration to say that most if not all of these nine pieces are historically significant examples of American folk art and it was a privilege to be able to "handle" them and to learn more about the artists. I hope I've done them justice.

I think that's enough context. Let's get down to the really interesting stuff: the artwork itself. Along with a JPG of each piece, I've provided all the information about the artist and the artwork I could find, along with a blurb highlighting a bit of biographical information about the creator. You can follow the links I provide if you want to know more.

Also, a mild disclaimer about the color accuracy of these images is in order. Most of the images I was given did not have color reference cards, so I didn't have a baseline to know what adjustments might be needed to approximate the look of the original piece. So, I offer my apologies to any art critics (or owners) who are familiar with the artwork. For the rest of you...just assume they're perfect representations!



Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White
Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White - Closeup of label with artist's description of painting
Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White

Title: Wrestling (1968)
Media: Oil on panels with carved relief and collage
Dimensions: 27 3/8" x 29 7/8" x 6 ΒΌ" (mounted on board)
Artist: George W. White, Jr. (1903-1970) [Bio via Texas State Historical Association]
Born: Cedar Creek, Texas
Comments: "Wrestling" (1968) has a hinged panel mounted in the center: when the panel is turned to the left the fight is represented in progress, and when turned to the right the winner is shown standing above his knocked-out opponent. (Via Texas State Historical Association website)

As a native Texan and former resident of the Dallas area, I was fascinated by this artwork. The  artist's comments on the label attached to the piece refer to a very famous wrestler, Fritz von Erich, patriarch of an equally [in]famous wrestling family living in the north Texas area. Mr. White was obviously a big fan not only of von Erich but of professional wrestling in general. This piece is practically a wrestling documentary. Killer Karl KoxGary Hart, and Spoiler #2 were all wrestling contemporaries of von Erich, and Marvin Jones was a well-known referee of the time.


Photo - 'Bull Dog' - Sculpture by Jesse Aaron

Title: Bull Dog (1969)
Media: Mixed media sculpture
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Jesse Aaron (1887-1979)
Born: Lake City, Florida
Comments: In 1968, while Aaron and his wife were living in the house he had built on N W Seventh A venue in Gainesville, he discovered that Lee Anna was losing her sight. He realized in desperation that without a steady job, he would have no money for her cataract- removal operations. As he told it to me, one morning he awoke at 3 A.M. with the voice of the Lord still reverberating in his ears, saying "Jesse, Carve Wood!" He immediately arose from his bed, went into his small workshop, and carved the first of his small wooden sculptures. (Via Souls Grown Deep website)

Jesse Aaron was a prolific folk artist and the web is chock full of examples of his work. This particular piece, however, is something of a ghost. I could locate no additional information about it. The Souls Grown Deep website linked above has a lot more information about Aaron.



Photo - Unknown sculptures

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media sculptures
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

I could locate no information about these pieces. I even tried doing Tineye searches on the individual figures, to no avail.



Photo - 'This Is It' - Painting by Luster Willis

Title: This Is It (date unknown)
Media: Unknown
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Luster Willis (1913-1991)
Born: Terry, Mississippi
CommentsWillis's paintings are made form a variety of paper and materials. He tries to achieve subtle, three-dimensional shifts by painting on different kinds of paper with various thicknesses and collaging them together on the same canvas. Willis refers to this product as a "set-in" because the different materials are set together like puzzle pieces. Willis used primarily watercolors and acrylic paints on paper, pasteboard, cardboard, and plywood. Occasionally, to achieve more depth, he would add shoe polish or gold or silver glitter to the edges of the "set-in" pieces. (Via Wikipedia)

Luster Willis was another prolific folk artist, and created many paintings entitled "This Is It." However, this particular version didn't appear in any of the searches I did.



Photo - Unknown mixed media painting

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

I would love to know more about this piece. The red star on the airplanes might indicate that this was a reference to the Cold War.



Photo - Unknown sculpture

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media sculpture
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

Once again, I struck out in my efforts to identify this sculpture of a horse race.



Photo - 'Pig on Expressway' - Artwork by Nellie Mae Rowe

Title: Pig on Expressway (1980)
Media: Crayon on paper
Dimensions: 17 3/4" x 23 3/4"
Artist: Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982)
Born: Fayette County, Georgia
Comments: Throughout her two-dimensional works, she incorporated common religious imagery, like the cross, or faith-based texts. A member of the African Methodist Church, Rowe was a deeply spiritual and religious Christian. Across some of her canvas she wrote, "Beleave in God and He Will Make A Way Far You" or "God Bless My House." She said, "Drawing is the only thing I think is good for the Lord" and attributed her artistic talent to God. Additionally, some scholars have located her depiction of "haints" or spirits in broader African-American spiritual traditions, which accepted the presence of voodoo spirits. (Via Wikipedia website)

Nellie Mae Rowe is one of the most important American folk artists, working in multiple media. Her art is on display in some of the most prestigioius museums in the country.



Photo - 'G.H. McNEAL THIS IS FISH BOAT BACK IN YEAR 1929 RUN BY StEAM' - Sculpture by Leslie J. Payne

Title: G.H. McNEAL THIS IS FISH BOAT BACK IN YEAR 1929 RUN BY StEAM (ca 1970-74)
Media: Wood/plastic/fabric/metal
Dimensions: 32 5/8" x 52 1/8" x 12 1/2"
Artist: Leslie J. "Airplane" Payne (1907-1981)
Born: Airport, Virginia
Comments: After living in New Jersey and Baltimore during his early adult life, Payne returned at forty to his native Virginia, where he made a living as a handyman while devoting much of his spare time to building large- and small-scale airplane models from found materials. They were displayed in an elaborate yard show that included model boats, hand-painted commemorative signs, and whirligigs. Payne was deeply interested in machinery of flight, but he also loved ornament.(Via Smithsonian American Art Museum website)

According to this piece's entry on the SAAM website, it was donated to the museum by Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., (1929-1998), an artist and collector of American folk art. The sculpture appears to not currently be on display...except here, albeit in two dimensions.



Photo - Painting by Inez Nathaniel-Walker

Title: Unknown
Media: Unknown
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Inez Nathaniel-Walker (1911-1990)
Born: Sumter, South Carolina
Comments: Inez Nathaniel went north to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the 1930s to escape the harsh realities of farm work in the rural South. Convicted of the manslaughter of an abusive male acquaintance, she served time in the Bedford Hills, New York, Correctional Facility from 1971 to 1972, where she began to draw to isolate herself from the "bad girls" in the facility. When she remarried in1975, she took her new husband's name, Walker. Walker's drawings are almost exclusively single or paired portraits of females. In most of her works, the heads are drawn much larger and more expressively than the rest of the figures and dominate thecomposition. Though Walker never felt she was able to capture a likeness, and she relied on her imagination to develop the faces, she created clearly recognizable characters. Some recur frequently. Elements of self-portraiture are also evident in her figures, many of whom wear clothing, especially hats, based on the artist's own.(Via Smithsonian American Art Museum website)

Walker's style is consistently recognizable, and the example shown here is one of scores, if not hundreds of similar variations. Again, however, this specific piece doesn't show up in a Google image search. There is a website devoted to her life and work that goes well beyond the typical Wikipedia summary.



Acknowledgements

I want to thank the folks who provided valuable input to this article, beginning of course with John Lovaas. John had no real incentive to go to the trouble of contacting me and then working to provide high quality images of the artwork discussed herein, other than a desire to help maintain the historical record, as it were.

I also greatly appreciate the help of my former ARCO colleagues -- most but not all of whom I knew in a former life -- in nailing down the probable location of the artwork. These folks include Joe "Accounting" Watson, Ben Kawakami, Art Hughes, Jim Sluder, and Steve Molina.
Update [9/23/20]: Thanks to a reader's comment on this post, I've been able to add a new chapter to the ARCO artwork saga. This time, it's focused on corporate art from ARCO's presence in the Chicago area. Read about it here.

Alert Gazette readers may recall that last year I wrote about ARCO's corporate artwork collection in Midland, and my role in helping dispose of it after BP gutted us acquired the Company. That post served the dual purposes of documenting an interesting period in my career and also providing an enduring (to the extent that anything on the web endures) glimpse at the art via the rudimentary website I built to showcase it.

A couple of months after posting the article, I received an email from someone in Los Angeles who had stumbled across it, and discovered that she'd purchased a copy of one of the works in the collection. Small world, huh?

I've been blogging a long time, and I'm no longer surprised at that sort of serendipitous encounter; Mr. Google has a way of working magic like that. At least, I thought I was immune to surprise. But, I received an email a week or so ago, and I have a new appreciation for the power of the web. Here's how it started:
Wow, just found your fascinating Blog (The Fire Ant Gazette) and had to contact you. I worked directly for Herbert Bayer and Curator Leila Mehle in the Los Angeles office (then Arco Plaza) in downtown LA back in the late 70's.

So it was with great interest that I found and read your Blog and toured your Virtual Gallery! Bravo for creating this!  
The composer of that email is David Halver, and that link that I put on his name will lead you to his IMDb profile. Go ahead and hop over and read about Mr. Halver; I'll wait right here.

David's email went into a great deal of detail about his work with ARCO's art collection, including some great anecdotes about the acclaimed Bauhaus artist Bayer and ARCO's legendary founder and chairman, R.O. (Bob) Anderson, and he has followed up with several additional missives. David was kind enough to grant me permission to share his letters, and I want to do that mainly to add some color and context the documentation of a piece of American corporate history that probably isn't well known.

Rather than copying and pasting David's email in its entirety, I'm taking the liberty of excerpting it and adding my own observations where possible. However, these excerpts are unedited.

On Anderson's artwork collecting habits...
I had the pleasure of meeting and working with [Herbert] Bayer on numerous occasions in Los Angeles as well as at his home outside Santa Barbara. It was Bayer's close friendship with CEO Anderson that got "Bob" interested in collecting; and as Bayer told it, Bob would often go on shopping sprees...hitting contemporary galleries in nearly every city he had business in; buying on impulse anything that he liked (with a then unheard of Platinum American Express card) and had them shipped to his ranch in Roswell, or his homes in NYC or LA or the huge penthouse suites overlooking the marina in Marina Del Rey, CA. 

As he soon tired of seeing them, he quickly replaced them and they all ended up in the offices in LA.  In the meantime, he had commissioned Hebert to select "important" pieces that were hung in the executive's offices, conference rooms, lobbies and waiting rooms. You mentioned 15,000 pieces...by the time Arco acquired Anaconda and built the Anaconda Tower (near the Brown Palace in Denver) it was closer to 30,000...thus the donation by the Bayer Estate to the Denver Art Museum. 
On the cataloging system used for the collection...

David was able to shed some light on the numbering system employed to keep track of the artwork.
In the process of working and trying to document the quickly growing collection, Mehle and I developed an inventory system of assigning an ID code (on a small aluminum tag) to the frames or pedestals of all artworks in LA offices; where part of the code ID'd the Artist, a "letter" code indicated the medium, and then a group of numbers indicated which specific piece; thus B001 was Bayer, SG stood for serigraph, and as he had several 100s in the collection, there were four (4) spaces for an ID number after that. As I recall, a code similar to L004.PT.0003 would be for a Lichtenstein original Painting and the third one in the collection. These ID numbers were included in the slide library for reference.
Notice the casual reference to Lichtenstein. Original paintings by the pop artist sell for more than $40,000 nowadays. The Midland office wasn't fortunate enough to land a Lichtenstein.

I wasn't alone in my efforts to document the collection via photographs.
I too had the honor to photograph the collection and built a massive slide library housed in the 515 offices (the North Tower). As the collection grew, and I had previous Art Gallery experience (installing and packing) in LA, I became the chief "installer" for the newly acquired pieces that were sent to Denver for the Anaconda Collection.
In subsequent emails, David expressed an intent to locate the slides and digitize them. I hope he's successful in doing so.

Herbert Bayer's 'Double Ascension' sculpture installation at ARCO Plaza in Los Angeles
Herbert Bayer's Double Ascension.
According to David, "Bob [Anderson] loved the original title, Stairway to Nowhere,
but he thought the Board of Directors wouldn't approve!)

On the sometimes amusing reactions by ARCO employees to some of the artwork...
One evening I was changing a framed print in one of the "hidden" xerox work stations (also used as the secretary's lunch area) behind one of the many extraordinarily crafted wood paneled walls...and a gentleman came in to use one of the many xerox machines. While it poured out dozens of collated copies, he asked me if I could help him get rid of that "awful painting" in his office.

He led me to his office and his polished chrome "name-plate" by the side of his door (the walls were covered with a dark beige wool) ID'd him as the VP of Arco's Chemical Division. The previous curator (prior to Mehle) had hung a rather dated and not very appealing framed print above the couch and chairs that his desk faced, and a small abstract watercolor over the built-in credenza behind his desk...not at all fitting for a man in his position. 

He asked about getting a Currier & Ives print or something that related to the outdoors "...anything would be better than that horrendous thing!"

As I had hand-carried the new print for the xerox room and was taking the old print by hand, I couldn't do anything about it at the moment, but promised him that I'd speak with the Curator the next day. The next night I was installing the pieces she had selected and he walked in (it was late as I recall, well after 9PM) and at first he got pissed... "What the hell is that? This is worse! What is that supposed to be?"

It was an extraordinary abstract multi-layered oil painting that had an extraordinary glaze covering it that gave it a brilliant glow. I had been prepared by Mehle in the event that this would happen. "The Curator thought that as you are the head of the Chemical Division that you might enjoy this. It's called "Cold Fusion of Diverse Elements"; the Artist was inspired by photographs taken by an electron microscope."

He stared at it for a while, then noticed an extraordinary B&W Ansel Adams surrounded by a wide cold white matte and framed in an elegant thin welded chrome frame over the credenza. "Now that...I like. But this other one, well, I'll have to think it over. Thanks."

Less than a week later, he sent a Thank You note to Mehle and months later, while I was doing something on the 50th floor, his door was open and I heard him telling someone... "The artist was inspired seeing a chemical reaction in a microscope. I love it!" I had to keep from laughing out loud.

A very similar thing happened with an extraordinary painting (actually, four side-by-side canvases) called "Into Plutonian Depths" ... I did a Google image search and all that comes up is that it was the title of a pulp fiction sci-fi novel back in 1950... sadly no images of the painting. Anyway, the images were extraordinary and lined up side by side (each was around 40" square) it was like looking out the portholes of a space ship at an Alien Landscape. It was on the same executive floor where the VPs of geology had their offices... and was immediately disliked. But once the Curator had a small plaque installed with the title and a brief explanation that it was in fact supposed to be "...the view from the bridge of a Mining Vessel that had just landed on another world to do geological exploration.." Needless to say, it was a big hit.
His accounts ring true, in my experience. The artwork didn't always elicit positive responses from employees, and the closer to oilpatch you got, the less openminded people were about some of the more avant garde or impressionistic works. (And lest you think I'm immune, I never did understand this one. Or this one.) But if you are able to explain the context or make the piece relevant to something in the viewer's experience, you're more likely to get acceptance, if not outright enthusiasm.



David has shared a great deal more about life in general around ARCO's Los Angeles offices, including how the buildings were featured in the 2005 movie, Fun With Dick and Jane, for which he served as location liaison. I'm most appreciative of his willingness to take the time to record his experiences with my longtime employer's art collection, and for his kind permission to share those experiences with you. And if he's successful in locating that slide collection, I'll do my best to talk him into sharing a few of the more important works.



Corrections & Amplifications: 

The original version of this post incorrectly referred to an office covered with "a dark beige wood," when in actuality the walls were covered in wool. On behalf of hard-working sheep everywhere, I apologize for this misstatement.

The original version of this post implied that ARCO had original Roy Lichtenstein paintings in its collection, when in fact it had "only" hand-signed/hand-pulled lithographs and serigraphs. I regret ARCO's cheapness.
Update [9/23/20]: Thanks to a comment on the post linked below, I've been able to add a new chapter to the ARCO artwork saga. This time, it's focused on corporate art from ARCO's presence in the Chicago area. Read about it here.

Update [10/5/16]: David Halver helped with the management of ARCO artwork collection in Los Angeles and Denver in the late 70s, and he contact me after reading this post. He provides a true insider's look at the collection and gave me permission to share his experiences, which I've done here.

In 2000, BP Amoco PLC acquired Atlantic Richfield Company for $27 billion, thus bringing a temporary end to my oil and gas career after 25 years. One of the things that ARCO was known for was its corporate artwork collection. Under the guidance of its chairman and CEO, the legendary oilman Robert O. Anderson, the company accumulated over 15,000 pieces of original artwork, housed in offices throughout the country. The collection included works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Herbert Bayer (a close friend of Anderson). Whether an oil company had any business investing so heavily in art is a legitimate question, but R.O. Anderson was a persuasive and charismatic guy, and the board and major shareholders didn't seem to mind.

ArtworkThe good stuff was, of course, on display at the corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, but even our office in Midland housed almost 300 pieces. They weren't universally appreciated - some of the more abstract pieces were subjects of ridicule, in fact - and the corporate art department seemed to be a bit tone-deaf when it came to providing regionally appropriate artwork, although they perhaps were simply trying to refine our philistine West Texas preferences.

Anyway, BP (they dropped Amoco in 2001) apparently didn't share ARCO's tastes in art, and so it was that the Midland office was instructed to dispose of its collection. They didn't express any strong opinions as to how we were to do that, and so during a brainstorming session I suggested that we might donate the proceeds from a sale of the artwork to the United Way, an organization that the Midland office had provided significant support for through the years. That idea quickly evolved into putting the pieces up for public auction, thinking that it might be a way to not only raise a tidy sum of money but also generate some good publicity for the United Way. According to a spreadsheet I found in my files, the original cost of the artwork was more than $75,000, and some of the pieces were thought to have appreciated significantly in value.
Update (7/21/15): I received an email today from someone whose sister bought one of these pieces - this one, to be exact - in an estate sale in Los Angeles a couple of days earlier. She found this post while searching for more information about the artwork, and contacted me to see if I could tell her anything more about it. Unfortunately, it seems that even the ARCO art department didn't know anything about it, because the original inventory list didn't list an artist or title. But it was quite interesting to track at least part of the journey of one of these works.
I volunteered to build a website that would showcase the artwork, and also provide a means for bidding. This was essentially my last project as a BP employee, and it was a fun one.

ArtworkThe first thing I had to do was photograph and catalog all 287 pieces. I had never photographed artwork, so everything was trial and error. My camera was a state of the art Sony Mavica MVC-FD7 [PDF] digital camera, which recorded .3 megapixel (640x480 pixels) images onto a 3.5" floppy disk. The pictures were pretty bad by today's standards, but given time and budget constraints, shooting high resolution photos on film just wasn't practical. If nothing else, the Sony provided quick turnaround and web-friendly results. (I still have the camera, but no battery to power it.)

If you've ever tried to photograph artwork, you know that it's not easy, especially if it's behind glass. I spent a lot of time in Photoshop cleaning up the images so they at least remotely resembled the originals.

The website design was also pretty laughable by today's standards, but not bad for the early Oughts. The site was actually designed with the idea that it would be distributed on CD-ROM, in addition to online access. But for some reason I can't recall, I resized the images to even smaller dimensions; most were only 250 pixels tall or wide. I suspect it's because at smaller sizes the images out of the camera didn't look so flawed, but that's just a guess. But keep in mind that at that time, home internet access was generally via dial-up modem and bandwidth was extremely limited. Image size was a big deal.

ArtworkThe end of this story gets really fuzzy for me, because I left the company before the final disposition of the art took place. I vaguely recall that the decision was made to donate all the art to the United Way and let that organization decide how best to dispose of it, and I further think they then found a dealer to purchase the entire collection. I have no idea how much they netted from the sale; I hope it was significant, but it didn't get a lot of publicity so perhaps it wasn't.

This is actually just a long introduction to the real purpose of this post, which is an attempt to preserve a little history that would otherwise fade completely out of sight. I have resurrected the original website that showcases - if you can call it that - the artwork that is now in the hands of unknown people. For all I know, much of it is now gracing garage sales around the country, while some might hang in other corporate HQs. But if you follow this link, you'll get a look at that art, as well as a reminder of what websites looked like fifteen years ago. (If you look carefully, you might find the lightning bolts that indicated hyperlinks...how clever was that?)