Why You Should Start an Artist in Residence

by | Mar 5, 2021

When we think of bringing artists to work in the corporate sector, the first thing that comes to mind tends to be utilizing their skills for content creation or visual marketing materials. However, an increase in Artist in Residency programs shows that there is value for creative mindsets in companies beyond those roles. Companies across various sectors, like Adobe, Planet, Google, and Microsoft, have implemented Artist in Residency programs to increase innovation, diversify perspectives, and develop and enhance the company culture. 

What is an Artist in Residence?

But what exactly is an Artist in Residence (or AIR)? The concept is not entirely new and has been a part of several revolutionary initiatives since the 1960s at organizations such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard. The idea is to invite artists into a company for a determined period of time to create art and engage with employees – expanding and challenging perspectives for both sides. By integrating the artist’s creative mindset into various areas of the company, they can challenge the current status quo and help find solutions to questions that might not have been asked yet. On the other end, artists get access to tools, resources, and knowledge they often don’t have.

In our podcast, we discussed these kinds of initiatives in-depth with both the artists and the directors who coordinate with them. It was fascinating to hear from both sides regarding how AIR programs are mutually beneficial and their importance in an increasingly technological world that may be losing touch with the creative, humanistic thought processes that could lead towards further advancements among existing technologies.  


Manus, Gannon

Manus | 2018 Madeline Gannon, Atonaton | Source: Atonaton

Artists Leading Innovation

“What can we create, what can we achieve, what will be tomorrow’s question that could be answered?” These are the questions Naomi Kempfer asks of the artists she collaborates with. As the Creative Director for arts, design, and fashion at Stratasys, a market leader in the field of 3D printing technology, she’s seen firsthand the value that AIR programs can bring to the table.

In fact, it was through collaboration with artist-designer Neri Oxman that led Stratasys to a breakthrough in the medical, rather than technology, field. The project, Mushtari, was set to question how humans would be able to survive within different atmospheric conditions, and Oxman had the idea to create an external digestive system using 3D printing. This presented a challenge for Kempfer and the engineers, who didn’t yet know how to print something that could contain and maneuver liquid across long distances.  

Then, one night, two engineers developed a liquid solution that was different from the gelatin-like substance they had previously been using, leading to a material that supported liquid after the printing process. The liquid solution they developed ultimately meant that Stratasys’ present technology could be used to print live tissue, and therefore, human organs. 

Naomi believes that not only do artists drive innovation through their consistently curious mindset but that they help enhance the employee and consumer engagement of the brand by tapping into humanity’s desire for connection and meaning. In her words: “art can connect and bridge people faster and deeper.” This made the company’s mission more personal to their audience and employees, encouraging employees in their work. 


Creating Safe Company Culture 

Just picture watching an award-winning engineer playing in a ball pit with his kids as a way to test new software for volumetric capture, or using researchers’ work to create art shows that attract new demographics. This was all part of James George’s experience as the pioneering Artist in Residence at Microsoft Research Labs. 

Like Naomi, James believes a key value of Artist Residencies lies in an artist’s ability to question current applications of technologies, leading to new innovations for how to apply their functions in the future. But he also believes that these questions can make researchers and artists more excited about their work, leading to happier employees and a more experiential company culture. 

“Give the artist free rein to…try new things, pull the boundaries off and you’ll find that it will energize your employees in a way you didn’t think was possible.” 

One of the moments he remembers most is when he tested new software by creating a large art installation. This led to computer graphic pioneer and Oscar award winner Charles Loop using his own software to be captured as a hologram in real-time while playing with his kids. That moment took the research out of the Microsoft engineers’ minds and into a new, fun, unexpected dynamic. James’ creative mindset pushed them to think “outside the box” to drive their innovations forward. 


Engaging Employees

Forest Stearns was also interested in pushing the boundaries of what he knew as an artist when he asked to work for Planet, a startup satellite imagery company at the time, to put artwork on their satellites. However, his work went beyond that to influence organizational change within the company culture. Like Noemi and James, he noticed that the presence of a boundary-pushing artist influenced the engineers around him to ask new, unexpected questions about their software.

But he also realized how his presence made it clear to the other employees that they were allowed to be creative as well: no matter their job title.  He created art nights, lectures about artistic themes and how they can be applied to their world. Because of the new conversations and collaborative culture this fostered within the company, new collaborations started to develop among the team. 

“It was a common conversation of ‘let’s win, push this idea and take hold of the entrepreneurial spirit’.”

Beyond that, he believes that residencies are also important in influencing the company’s common conversation. That applying art’s human-centered values can influence that conversation for the better. How can we inspire the internal team and the outside audience to challenge their view of the world?


Forest Stearns Artist in Residence

Planet Family Grove | Forest Stearns | Source: Planet Labs

The Future of the Company Culture

Through these professionals’ experiences, we can see how well AIR programs function within the business sector. Not only do these programs might affect an organization’s bottom line by increasing the innovation and productivity of the company, but they also inspire employees. Therefore creating a more open company culture, a crucial factor in developing employee satisfaction and higher retention rates. With the entrance of a new generation into the workforce that is highly focused on job satisfaction, this focus on work culture is imperative. 

By inviting artists, and their tendency towards encouraging collaborations that incorporate empathy, a key soft skill, they create a more open office culture. This allows for more interaction across teams, which can also further innovation by increasing transdisciplinary conversations among employees. 

With the success of AIR programs in terms of both technological innovation and improved company culture, it will be interesting to see how these programs are implemented and how they will change the business sector as we currently know it. 



To hear more about our speakers’ Artist in Residence experiences, check out their podcast episodes here.

To learn more about the value artists can bring to corporate culture and innovation check out the other articles on our blog!


-Marisa Cedeno

What can we create together?