Interview with Naomi Milgrom CEO of the Sportsgirl/Sussan Group, Melbourne, Australia
It is precisely because of her discipline, support for creativity, advocacy for design and incredibly sharp focus on business that Naomi Milgrom chose to integrate art throughout her corporate administrative headquarters in Melbourne Australia, and to create an art gallery for employees in the women’s wear head office itself. An art space, she believes, is as important to creating a healthy space to work in, as is the communal kitchen on the premises.
The eldest daughter of a successful Melbourne retailing family who themselves collected art and created a private collection, Naomi Milgrom took over the reins in 1998 and continued to grow the company. In 2008 she chose a new location for the company’s administrative headquarters and hired the architectural firm of Durbach Block Jaggers to turn an old tomato factory into a space that would help give the people working there a rewarding place to work. It’s an environment where architecture, discussion, art and nature are part of the daily routine as much as the demands of business. The headquarters of Sussan won the Australian Institute of Architect’s 2009 National Commercial Architecture Award and the Sir Osborn McCutcheon Award for Commercial Architecture.
Art is integrated throughout the two-story building, which offers views of a riverfront and an internal garden as the ‘heart’ of the building. The dedicated gallery space is open to employees one day per week at lunchtime and features artist talks and the time and place for discussions, learning, and cross-fertilizing ideas. Works on display in the headquarters building and in the gallery itself are by such noted artists as Callum Morton, Sol LeWitt, William Kentridge, Richard Long and Ugo Rondinone as well as artists such as the Australians Jonathan Jones and Howard Arkley.
EAS: You grew up surrounded by art. When did you purchase your first art work?
NM: Yes, I have always been interested and excited by art, design and architecture. My first art work was acquired when I was studying at University: an iron assemblage by Rosalie Gascoigne which I still cherish. I admired her work from a very early age and was interested in art made with found objects.
EAS: At Sussan HQ you created an inspiring place to work. What motivated you to take this approach?
NM: As a collector, I wanted to share my ambition with the people I work with every day and who spend most of their time in the offices, so I thought that it would be wonderful if I could share my passion for art with my staff and nurture their interest in contemporary art. As my collection grew and my new head office plans developed, it became the perfect time to introduce my collection into the workplace.
It wasn’t only about art. I strongly believe that human happiness is a business asset, so we put a lot of thought into how people would move in the building. There has been much research done about how design and architecture influence the health and well-being of the people living and working in those spaces. The environment does influence how the people think and how they work. The architectural aspect is extremely important.
"Palmer Parade"; Ugo Rondinone
We wanted people to have different views from the different places they sit in the building, and it was also about nature and respecting the environment. For example, the trees of life in the courtyard reflect the seasonality of the fashion world that we work in. Being in the retail business, I wanted to express that seasonality. At this very moment we are coming to spring and the trees bear a beautiful white blossom on very stark branches. The trees are very much like a sculpture, in the center of the building, and as they develop their leaves, this process also reflects the development of our work.
So you see, there were many attributes that were very important to me.
“The resulting building is an emotion with some bricks around it; an enlightened environment for the staff.”
EAS: How did you go about commissioning the architects and what were your specific demands for the building?
I contacted four architects whom I thought had the capacity to understand the brief. I had a very firm ideology about what I wanted the building to be. So when I interviewed the architects we sat in the old building - an ‘80s block with two warehouses attached to it that needed to be connected. Then we walked through the spaces and I talked to them about the fact that it had to be a commercial office. It would have to be light and it would have to have green - that was the more general conversation.
But what I really wanted was an emotion. So it wasn’t around constructing a diagram; it was about the picture of an emotional response to the brief. I wanted them to develop a feeling about what I envisioned.
I knew Neil Durbach from Durbach Block Jaggers, and had been very impressed with their house designs and beautiful detailing. Although they had only designed homes, not office buildings, up to that point, this actually worked in our favor since I did want the feeling of a home within the façade of an office building.
Neil drew a building with a big heart in the middle of it. I couldn’t have asked for more than that; he absolutely understood me. His sketch mirrored exactly what we had discussed. That was really extraordinary.
EAS: You display art throughout the headquarters, but you also have a dedicated art gallery which is available only to people who work there. What is the thinking behind this?
NM: During the design process for the building, we realized that it would be possible to create a gallery space which is 20 meters long x 5 meters wide. This meant I was able to bring some of my collection together in a comprehensive and meaningful way. It was also a way that staff could enjoy seeing the works in context and have a deeper understanding of the collection. The employees don’t see it as an art space, they see it as an integrated part of the building.
Palmer Parade; Sol Lewitt & Michael Parekowhai
We change the exhibition every three or four months. I also have artists come to the art space and give talks about their work to staff to try to engage people with the art and the ideas around what we are presenting in the exhibition. The gallery is not a public space, but I do occasionally hold special functions there for a wider audience.
EAS: What have you noticed in particular about employee behavior and attitudes regarding the art program?
NM: The staff is made up of a range of people: for some, this is the first time they have seen contemporary art, while there are others who recognize a Thomas Demand photograph for instance. It’s been very interesting observing people grow to admire contemporary art and others becoming attached to certain artists.
There are many requests from staff for information about the artists and their art work, and they often ask me questions about the history of a particular art work. I have been thrilled with the enthusiasm and attendance by our staff for the artist’s talks - given mainly by local artists who have art works in the collection - and the many tours of the office and other exhibitions as well as special art events. Through the art they get to know what I like, and I get to understand what they are looking for in art. A positive experience for all, it has an impact on everyone’s wellbeing.
So overall, there has been a great response to the art. A good example is when some of the works went on loan to the Auckland City Art Gallery in New Zealand, and there were many empty walls in the building as a result. This had quite an impact on staff: they were aghast that “their works” had disappeared!!
“The environment does influence how employees think and how they work.”
EAS: You know many artists and collect a number in depth. Why is the interaction with artists important to you?
NM: First and foremost, it’s as it is with friends: you like what they do, you want to spend time with them. You are interested in what motivates them, what inspires them. There are some artists that I have wanted to collect in depth: maybe a particular series that they have done, or just to build on some of their works I already have. I like finding out the intellectual reason artists do things in a certain way.
To explore all these aspects of the work, you have to know the artist personally.
Palmer Parade; Gabrielle Kuri
I have been very fortunate to meet many of the artists who are in my collection and we have formed long lasting friendships. It’s important to me because I learn what their movement, continuum and development is. No one ever stays in the same state over a long period of time.
EAS: Which artists in particular are you very close to?
NM: There are a few of them. I have always been a great admirer of Gillian Wearing. I am very close to William Kentridge and have come to an understanding of where he is coming from. Ugo Rondinone is another one. Also Tatiana Trouve.
EAS: What motivates your artist selections?
NM: I choose what I love. I have had a deep emotional response to many of the works I have acquired, as well as knowledge of the work. I do not deliberately seek to ‘push the envelope;’ however, there are some works in the collection that people do not like at all and they tell me about them.
EAS: What impact do you think your approach to integrating art and architecture in your company headquarters has on your business?
NM: I’ve never looked at my approach to art in the office from a commercial point of view. And I couldn’t say there is any outcome from a business point of view. But there is an outcome from the emotional point of view. I think art has a subliminal effect on those at the office. It affects how the employees are feeling in their environment, where they are surrounded by beautiful things and the garden. So they feel pleasure and can go outside and enjoy the garden. Maybe one could say that greater productivity comes out of it. People are inspired when they are happy. I’m sure you can find research that supports that.
“Certainly there is a respect for the art here and that flows through to the corporate culture.”
EAS: Do you integrate art into marketing activities?
NM: No. I don’t think about it like that. There are many things that art can inspire: like the methodology and making an image. There could be inspiration for a color combination. Ugo Rondinone’s Target-paintings for example, looking at the way he deals with color. Or Baldessari’s work, when looking at images. You don’t have to advertise the fact that you are working with artists or being inspired by artists.
EAS: What advice do you have for other corporate executives about engaging in art?
NM It’s very difficult to say because everyone has a different view on art. The art should be a bridge between the workplace and higher ideals. As long as the interest is authentic, it should inspire and benefit the organization and its people. As entrepreneurs we always have to find a way to motivate, stimulate, inspire and create beyond the mundane. Anything that has to do with creativity - it doesn’t have to be only visual art - it could be performance art, it could be a number of things.
We support these other disciplines too, because from my point of view this inspiration is not restricted to visual art.
I believe that companies have to think about going beyond seeing their employees as only workers. Otherwise, I think they are hindering the level of creativity that is possible to achieve. There isn’t any visitor from another company who doesn’t say, “This is a magical place; it must be wonderful to work here. I’d like to work here.” You know I show many company executives around our offices and it’s very rewarding to get this feedback.
“Art should be a bridge between the workplace and higher ideals.”
EAS: Do you think that it is important that companies support art?
NM: I think individual philanthropic activities are important, and we have to work together with the creative industry. We should be creating environments that showcase artistic ideals from around the world. Displaying artworks that offer a window into social, political and economic aesthetics and that inspire people to do their best.
EAS: What are your plans for future projects?
NM: The annual design and architecture commission MPavilion keeps me busy. It’s the main project the Naomi Milgrom Foundation presents over the summer months free for the public to enjoy in Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Gardens.
I am also honored to be appointed Commissioner for the Australian Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale 2017, and I’m very lucky to be working with the Australian artist Tracey Moffatt creating the exhibition. It will be a busy year leading up to this wonderful event.
Interview: Ellen-Andrea Seehusen
Text: Shellie Karabell
Photos: Sussan Group