PUBLIC SHARE: Circa 1881 Offers a New Way to Experience Art in Public Spaces

Displaying world-class contemporary art is a boon to any organization or business, but it’s not always easy—or economical—to come by.

This was the problem Alvaro Leal sought to remedy in 2012 when he founded Circa 1881, a company devoted to sharing contemporary works of art in public spaces. The business—whose name refers to the year the Société des Artistes Français began hosting its own exhibitions, ushering in the modern art movement—brings work owned by private collectors to private companies and non-profit organizations that are interested in displaying museum-worthy artworks for a period of time, from several weeks up to a year or more. Pieces may come from artists who are actively working today, to masters from the last sixty years.

Circa 1881 handles each exhibition process from start to finish—including the selection of works from its extensive inventory of private collections the company manages, coordinating and curating the exhibition, delivery, installation, insurance, permits, public relations, maintenance, security, and deinstallation—depending on the client’s needs. The company can also develop and organize programming such as artist or curator talks to complement these exhibitions, an added benefit designed both to educate staff and the public about the particular exhibition and to create excitement and draw people into the space.

Grimanesa Amorós's Pink Lotus, 2015, a site specific installation on the façade of The Peninsula New York in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month.
Grimanesa Amorós’s Pink Lotus, 2015, a site-specific installation on the façade of The Peninsula New York in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month.

“We work closely with our clients to really find out what they’re looking for, and then curate an exhibition or a program around their needs,” says Liz Dimmitt, the company’s director. “We can tie art exhibitions to particular events, like product launches, museum exhibitions, or city-wide celebrations to help meet a strategic goal or create a meaningful, artful space.”

The company has worked with a variety of non-profit and private industries, including hospitality, healthcare, corporations, and lifestyle and luxury brands to develop original art exhibitions, which may include anything from a single, substantial sculpture, to a collection of paintings or photographs from a particular movement or region, to a spectacular light or video installation by a contemporary new media artist. Free loans are made to non-profits and museums. Circa 1881 currently has works included in exhibitions at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts; and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. With its vast resource of world-class art, the company welcomes partnerships with curators, art consultants, architects, and designers.

Steven Meisel's Linda Pulling Face, 1989 greeting guests at the entrance of Salon de Ning, NYC.
Steven Meisel’s Linda Pulling Face, 1989 greeting guests at the entrance of Salon de Ning, NYC.

Central to all Circa 1881’s work is its founder’s belief that great art works should be brought out of storage and into public view.

A longtime businessman and art collector, Leal understands the value of sharing personal art collections and sees a purpose that’s greater than amassing assets. “After a number of years, you realize as a collector that you’ve collected more artwork than you can enjoy in your lifetime,” he says. And while a number of super-wealthy art collectors have created their own museums, Leal feels there’s more immediacy and connection to art when it resides in the spaces where we live and work. “If you can experience great works of art in the building where you live, or the lobby of a hotel where you’re staying, I think you take the time to learn more about the artwork and the artist.”

The Impact of High-End Art on the Bottom Line

There’s no doubt that commissioning permanent, site-specific art installations is certainly laudable, but there are definite advantages to organizations and businesses that embrace Circa 1881’s new way of thinking about exhibiting art. For starters, there’s the budget.

“For a fraction of the cost of, say, remodeling your entire corporate or hotel lobby, you can get a new aesthetic environment every year or every two years,” Leal explains. “You may only really remodel your space every ten to twenty years, and you may walk past the same art in that space day after day, year after year. Circa 1881 offers a different proposition. We can give a space a new feeling and really engage the users of that space by creating a unique art experience.”

This sense of creating a new experience or completing a space in an interesting way is another advantage Circa 1881 offers to organizations looking to extend their brand and engage and attract viewers and customers.

“We’ve found that the exhibitions and programming we create can really create buzz for an organization,” says Dimmitt. “In our image-based society, people are eager to share their experiences on social media, and they’re also more demanding and intelligent about what they expect from the places they spend time. Exciting, world-class art often inspires its audience to engage with it by posting a photo or a comment—and that’s a great additional exposure for the organizations that hire us.”

Cornelia Parker,Composition with Horns (Reveille), 2010. Installed in conjunction with Parker’s summer 2016 rooftop project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Cornelia Parker, Composition with Horns (Reveille), 2010. Installed in conjunction with Parker’s summer 2016 rooftop project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Buzz from an art exhibition may also come to an organization in the form of conventional media, as was the case with Circa 1881’s 2015 project for The Peninsula New York, a site-specific installation of Grimanesa Amorós’s Pink Lotus. The large LED light sculpture, which was temporarily installed on the façade of the hotel, was one in a series of pink-inspired artwork by internationally acclaimed artists for the hotel chain’s worldwide exhibit “The Art of Pink,” created to raise awareness about breast cancer. Circa 1881 also organized a public talk by the artist at The Peninsula New York, and the project attracted a significant media attention with features and mentions in multiple industry and society publications, garnering attention and funds for breast cancer charities, and excitement for the hotel brand. In addition, Pink Lotus was awarded a 2016 CODAaward for best integration of commissioned art into a hospitality space.

For Dimmitt, whose background in corporate art programs segued naturally into her work with Circa 1881, the inclusion of artwork in an organization just makes good financial sense. “Over the years, it’s been increasingly important for businesses to embrace an art and culture strategy,” she says. “Consumers have become more visually educated and curate their lives daily through technology, so they expect businesses to incorporate creative content in their spaces.”

“In the same way that information technology has evolved, so has industry’s understanding of the benefits of including art in places where people work,” Leal adds. “For businesses that are pushing employees to innovate and think outside the box, there’s no better way to reflect a culture of creativity than by bringing works by leading contemporary artists into their corporate spaces. Circa 1881 offers an easy and cost-effective way to go far beyond decorating a space.”