Translating Art for the Masses : Collections: Bank's cultural affairs director cringes at art that merely decorates. But one recent exhibit backfired when employees and clients just didn't get it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Tressa Miller hung a group of what she calls "evocatively erotic" photo collages by Robert Heineken in offices at Security Pacific Bank's San Francisco headquarters, reaction was swift and stern.

A few days later, an employee called to complain, saying that co-workers on her floor viewed the images--superimposed ads and editorial material from Vogue magazine--as demeaning to women.

Miller, the bank's vivacious 48-year-old first vice president and director of cultural affairs, sent back a memo explaining that Heineken's point was to show how women are routinely manipulated by the media.

Eventually, the memo found its way to every floor of the building, and people came in droves to see the works.

But--as Miller recounted the story Monday as part of an Art Forum lecture at Rancho Santiago College--the women whose offices were on that floor noted that they dealt mainly with small business clients who didn't understand work of that nature, and it was tedious to constantly be explaining the art to them.

In the end, Miller--who described her position as "a translator of what artists are doing today to the lay world"--took the works down.

Art hung in offices "can't be very threatening," she said. "There are all kinds of people in the workplace. . . . At home they could walk away or put (the art) in a different place. But at work, they are forced to confront it on a day-to-day basis."

Her goal is to get people to "accept as much contemporary art as they can (without becoming) so confrontational I can't get people to live with it. You don't want pabulum or decoration--but a lot of it is decorative."

There are guidelines in a corporate setting.

For example, the 12,000-piece Security Pacific collection does not include art with frontal nudity. On the other hand, Miller said, "lifestyles have changed. There was a time I was told 'absolutely no nudes.' But we keep pushing a little bit more."

Teasingly asked if the collection includes any works by Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer of homoerotic images, Miller said it did.

"It's a calla lily photograph. With any artist's work, you can find significant work that can give an idea of what the artist's work is about without (involving) more confrontational images. The lilies are sensual, they are erotic, but they don't hit you on the head."

The Security Pacific collection, installed in the bank's offices worldwide, is separate from its gallery program, which Miller also administers.

Begun in 1975 in the Los Angeles office as a public relations effort to bring potential clients to downtown Los Angeles, the gallery program has expanded to Costa Mesa, Phoenix and (opening this fall) San Francisco and Seattle.

Each in-house gallery displays several thematic exhibitions of contemporary art annually.

"How do the exhibitions relate to the collection?" Miller asked. "There is an enormous impact. Through the exhibitions, (employees) are willing to look at the art in their own office spaces in a different way. (The exhibitions) are very instrumental as an educational tool."

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