Oct 21, 2015

Senior Company Artist - Loy Yang Power

Georgie Mattingley, our current artist in residence, came home from a day’s photographic shoot at Loy Yang power station to excitedly tell us that everyone still remembers my time out there as Senior Company Artist – Loy Yang Power, nearly 20 years ago. The memories came flooding back for me, I’ve always seen that period as one of the most influential in my life as an artist.

My 4 assistants Anton Vardy, Chris Roe, Drew Cole & Philip Toth 
paid for by Monash University - photo Angela Lynkushka
we used some of those cylinders (idlers) for the base of the big public sculpture

It is a grand title, but how it came to be is just as interesting as what we wound up doing with the big Power Co. It all started with Loy Yang Power approaching the head of the art school at Monash University Gippsland Campus in 1995 asking if they could develop a relationship. Put bluntly Monash didn’t really know what a relationship was and assumed that it meant Loy Yang giving the art school money for something like a scholarship and in return the school would badge exhibition catalogues with Loy Yang’s logo. Eventually after both Deputy and Head of school made no progress, the head, possibly in desperation, asked me to try to work out what all this relationship talk was really about.

I soon discovered that both Loy Yang’s CEO, Bob Patterson and head of Corporate Relations and Environment, Richard Elkington were extremely imaginative and creative people who had a vague hunch that artists and possibly their problem solving processes may in some way be harnessed for the company’s good. Over the occasional chat, the odd invitation to an event or informal lunch with Elkington I soon started to realise what all this relationship stuff actually meant, he would describe some of the company’s problems, I’d do the same from an artist’s perspective and we’d both contribute ideas for making things better for each other. Simple really.

Richard Elkington had an idea that I and some of my students could “style” their big Christmas corporate function and as we discussed it further I realised that he was asking us to create an event that expressed the company identity and lurking in this was a genuine belief in being as environmentally responsible as a coal fired power station could ever be, so without either being literal or ramming the message in the faces of their guests we designed the function. First little job a big success, and the students were nearly overwhelmed at being paid properly.

In our workshop - photo Angela Lynkushka

At roughly the same time we suggested that the company apply to the Australia Council for a “partnership” grant, we designed and wrote it around the general idea that the both company and artist would explore the notion that an artist could be very useful to a company and Loy Yang submitted it. The concept of Senior Company Artist – Loy Yang Power was born and coincidentally CEO Patterson during his dinner speech announced its success. He added that he’d been to another function full of major company CEOs a few days earlier, the conversation had got round to “corporate citizenship” and of course he was able to announce that they not only had a Senior Company Artist! but they’d also got a government grant to pay for it; a cause for significant adoration from his peers.

In a way we’d just proved how useful an artist could be, and this was before we’d really started.

Philip and Chris at work

The financial breakdown of the deal deserves a mention, my wages were paid for with the Australia Council grant, topped up to some extent by my main employer, Monash University, and Loy Yang supplied materials, tools, logistics, studio space, engineering, fabrication, documentation etc  which are, in effect, mostly in-kind costs using their own expertise and resources.

Finished major work prior to installation - photo The Visual Resource

The project was to run for 2 years (it actually continued for a further 2 years and during the first we would concentrate on the company’s own identity and its ability to communicate more effectively with all levels of government, whilst the second year was primarily devoted to the Latrobe Valley community.

We kicked–off by suggesting that Loy Yang Power place advertisements in the Saturday art pages of the Age and Australian newspapers thanking the Australia Council for their grant, it turned out, so the council told us, that this was first time that anybody had thanked them publicly, which was a big surprise to us.

The finished major work - Lars Compitalis 
in Victory Park Traralgon 
Loy Yang Power's gift to the La Trobe community
The Visual Resource

Underpinning the whole idea behind the Senior Company Artist model was the belief that pre-20th Century patronage may not have been quite as bad for the artists as we’d led ourselves to believe and that an up-dated version could be very useful in achieving things that many companies found very difficult.

The Federal Minister for the Arts the Hon Peter McGauran 
and Anton Vardy unveil - photo The Visual Resource

The sorts of questions senior management asked me to look at, were, most often, about improving its communication and access to all levels of government, it turned out that a reasonably well known artist could procure a cabinet minister far more easily than a big power company. For one smallish project we got personal signed letters of thanks from both the State Premier and Prime Minister.

The most interesting request came from the CEO who felt that the morale in a certain section could be improved, so he suggested that we move my studio nearer to them, just to see what might happen, again a huge success.

My art was never compromised in any way during the project, in fact I learned that the company had realised that the better I did as an artist the better it would be for them.

The nicest compliment we got was “He’s a lot more useful than a tennis player and a damn sight cheaper” (from a middle level company engineer)

CEO, Mayor, Minister and me (our kids in the background)

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