SEATTLE—Over the past 20 years, Microsoft has quietly amassed a collection of some 4,500 artworks, most of them modestly priced at the time of purchase, from the U.S. and abroad.
Some 95 percent of the collection is on view in Microsoft hallways and public spaces, with only about 5 percent in storage—in contrast to many museums where the percentages are reversed. About 250,000 visitors and employees pass annually through the conference center in Redmond, Wash., that houses some of the most significant and beloved pieces.
According to art-collection program manager Laura Matzer, the collection is definitely still growing. “Right now we’re collecting works by emerging and mid-career international artists—and really trying to place emphasis on the word ‘international,’” says Matzer, who came to Microsoft in 2003 and has a background in museum education.
She was formerly public programs coordinator at the Amon Carter Museum, Forth Worth, Texas, and also worked at the El Paso Museum of Art. “For example” she explains, “we don’t have very much by Chinese or Indian artists, and we’re also looking for Russian artists.”
Last January, Matzer went on a buying trip to Japan—purchasing works by Satoshi Hirose and Saturo Aoyana, among others—for Microsoft’s new campus in Tokyo. An expansion of the Microsoft campus in Hyderabad, India, is also underway, and the main campus in Redmond will be expanded as well.
Like the company itself, Microsoft’s art collection has come a long way since it was founded in 1987. The collection’s first in-house curator, Michael Klein, was hired in 1999. Initially the collecting process was handled by an employee committee that acquired mostly Northwest regional art—until a consultant recommended the unifying eye of one, more permanent, curator.
Matzer says Klein was responsible for laying the foundations of the collection as it is now, with an emphasis on a mix of local and nationally significant art for each regional headquarters, as well as its extensive education and outreach programs, including talks by artists in the collection, themed shows, public tours, even collecting seminars.
By the time Klein left in November 2004, the core collection and the company’s art-related policies were well-established. Now Matzer is taking the collection from there—in a company that has expanded beyond the U.S. into more than 90 other countries and currently employs nearly 60,000 people globally.
Among recent purchases: a 2006 silkscreen print, The World, by Paula Scher, which Matzer describes as an “information-laden” world map that “brings amazing personality to the mapping system”; computer-programmed composite lithographs by Benjamin Edwards; an ink pen-and-watercolor drawing by Italian artist Siggi Hofer; urban landscape photography by Amir Zaki; and print abstractions by Seattle-based Jaq Chartier that refer to DNA gel electrophoresis and the migration of water-soluble stains.
Among the works that Matzer mentions as “key” to the broader collection are pieces by Tina Barney, Dale Chihuly, Chuck Close, Michael Craig-Martin, Bean Finneran, Naoya Hatakeyama, Satoshi Hirose, David Ireland, Jacob Lawrence, Sol LeWitt (commissioned wall drawing), Kathryn Lynch, Yunhee Min (also a commissioned wall drawing), Takashi Murakami, Julian Opie, Tokihiro Sato, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, Robert Sperry and Xiaoze Xie.
Many of these are works on paper or multiples, formats that have allowed the company to move art easily from place to place and to stretch its art-buying budget (financial details of which have always been a closely held company secret).
At Microsoft the lengthy interpretive text panels on the wall beside the art may also feature bar codes—the beginnings of a computerized infrared bar-code reading system for easy tracking of the individual artworks, which are usually moved every two years to a new location.
Some labels even sport a mysterious, 1-inch- wide plastic disk that, it turns out, is an experimental prototype for a transmission system that would someday allow viewers with handheld computing devices to instantly access additional information about a piece, or to access an artist or gallery Website. This is, after all, a technology firm that prides itself on innovation.