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The ‘Art’ of Spurring Worker Creativity : Aerojet Collection to Be Missed by Most

San Diego County Arts Writer

Executive secretary Elaine Alvillar is facing a divorce from what she calls “my absolute favorite thing,” a tall, green-hued, partly abstract watercolor titled “February Fish,” by Joseph Raffael. It graces the wall next to her desk.

Executive secretary Sue Harrington soon will bid adieu to contemporary artist Kenneth Noland’s “Diagonal Stripes.”

“I go for the muted colors, the greens and blues,” Harrington said of the geometric painting a few feet from her desk. “They’re soothing.”

Harrington’s and Alvillar’s employer, Aerojet, a defense contractor that specializes in aerospace products, announced plans last week to move its La Jolla headquarters to Sacramento. As part of the move, the company will sell the impressive contemporary art collection that adorns the Aerojet offices and hallways.

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Aerojet executives say they hope to sell the entire collection to a developer who will keep the artwork in San Diego. A Centre City Development Corp. requirement that builders in redevelopment districts allocate some of their building costs to art could be covered with one-stop shopping at Aerojet. Otherwise, the collection will be auctioned off piece by piece.

Among the 216 paintings, lithographs and sculptures is superior work by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell, and local artists such as Russell Forester and Robin Bright.

“It’s probably the strongest corporate collection in San Diego,” said Hugh Davies, director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. “And as an example of art in the work place, I would say that Aeroject and Scripps Clinic represent the two best examples in the city.”

Davies described Aerojet’s move and the dispersal of the art collection as “demoralizing,” but not crippling. “Other corporations have collections here and new ones are forming (collections) all the time,” he said.

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While Aerojet employees recognize that the company move and art collection sale are part of a cost-reduction plan, some will sorely miss the artworks that have played an intangible role in their work.

“There’s such a mixture of it here, it’s like being in a museum,” said executive secretary Monica Seyfnarimani. “There’s a lot of individuality, a lot of moods. You can tell that each piece is a mood the artist is representing. I feel that way, at least.”

Seyfnarimani particularly enjoys British artist Richard Smith’s muted red acrylic on canvas, “Manhattan No. 1,” which reminds her of sailboats and kites more than city office towers.

Robert Ochs, director of manufacturing technology, would “give my eye teeth” for the Raffael. Since coming to Aerojet nine year’s ago as an engineer, Ochs’s art appreciation has grown from representational art to include some abstract pieces. He and his wife have collected several works for their home, including a piece by Joan Miro.

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But Ochs does not like everything in the collection.

“I really am intrigued and appreciative of perhaps 25% of the pieces in the collection,” Ochs said. “I like 40%. The other 60%, I say well, those are the odds.”

Aerojet’s contemporary art collection grew out of management’s desire to reflect the company’s high-tech role in the aerospace industry. When Aerojet moved its corporate headquarters to La Jolla from El Monte in 1979, executives commissioned La Jolla architect Howard Oxley to design a modern office building.

Oxley responded to the Torrey Pines Road environment with a “transparent” design for a three-story building, featuring a clear glass “curtain wall” facade, redwood and unpainted concrete and brick. The structure commands impressive views of the Pacific Ocean and the Torrey Pines golf course.

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The company, which has produced engines for Titan rockets, Gemini missiles and the space shuttle, decided to decorate the new headquarters with contemporary art.

Aerojet executives said that they used contemporary art years ago as a decor with the hope of stimulating employees’ creativity. The company sponsored an educational program at the La Jolla facility on the art and the artists, including after-hours lectures for employees and their spouses. But not every employee was won over or will miss the collection when it is sold.

Omer Ruiz, director of contracts with customer firms, acknowledges his lack of affection for the collection.

“I’m not in the category of people who can’t stand the art,” Ruiz said recently. “But I have to put myself in the category of not appreciating it. I don’t have any sense of inspiration or identity or ‘lifting’ by virtue of this particular art.”

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Dave Strode, Aerojet director of government finance relations, said he has “a tough time understanding and appreciating” the art.

“When we get together to talk about the art, and somebody mentions a piece he likes or dislikes, I won’t even remember it, even though I probably see it every day,” Strode said.

A sports fan, Strode prefers representational art, like the forest scene watercolor on his office wall. “If you put a few Leroy Neimans in front of me, I’ll know what you’re talking about,” he laughed.

Ochs, however, thinks “it’s exceedingly unfortunate” that the company is selling the collection.

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“I have been to a number of shows and collections and I have never seen a contemporary art collection in one place that has the scope and diversity of this one,” Ochs said. “We’re losing a tremendous asset. It has given a level of dignity to this office complex that will be hard to arrive at in any other way.”

However, the times have changed, and Aerojet’s new president has declared that the company must cut costs to remain competitive, Sprague said. Aerojet plans to vacate its modern La Jolla building in August or September to move to a more traditional structure it owns in the Sacramento area, where more than half its 8,000 employees work.

“The decision was, ‘Let’s make a change if we’re moving to a new building,’ ” Sprague said. “Let’s start afresh. The reason to sell (the art) was also to make a statement that this is a new outfit.”

The Aerojet collection was recently appraised, with pieces ranging in value from “hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars,” Sprague said. He said the company may donate something to a local art institution as well as give Aerojet employees a chance to buy art pieces.

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Working around contemporary art objects has had a surprising effect on secretary Alvillar, who on a recent weekend bought an art work for her home.

“I actually bought something modern,” Alvillar said, “and I thought, ‘Hmm, this is like the art we have at Aerojet.’ ”


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