Arts and Culture

When Polish artist Jakub Szczęsny arrived at the GE FirstBuild factory two weeks ago as the company’s first artist in residence, he expected his first day at work to play out like a scene from a mad scientist’s lab in American film.

“And it’s pretty much that kind of place, actually” Szczęsny said. “What’s happening here is probably, within the appliance production world or any commodity production world, what would be understood as highly freaky and experimental.”

FirstBuild, near the University of Louisville’s Belknap campus, is where GE produces and tests small-scale prototypes of innovative home appliances.

Through his past public art installations, Szczęsny, an architect and artist, explored the intersect between aesthetic and functionality—making him an ideal candidate to be an artist in residence at the microfactory where, instead of creating art, he will work with staff until Dec. 4 to promote creative thinking and encourage ingenuity.

This unique idea for placing artists within a corporate setting is the result of a partnership between the Louisville-based creative chamber of commerce IDEAS 40203 and the New York-based Residency Unlimited. The initiative is called XLerateArt and is funded through a $50,000 “Our Town” National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Theo Edmonds, the co-founder of IDEAS 40203, said that through XLerateArt the community is challenged to reimagine what corporate support for the arts looks like—creating more of an intersection between the disciplines. He hopes to place artists on project teams with business professionals such as engineers, financial analysts and marketing executives with corporations in every major industry cluster across the city.

“As a contemporary art chamber of commerce, we are positioning Louisville as a national thought leader poised to reap the rewards that come from the seemingly improbable circumstances which transpire when the creative mind is introduced into business and managed toward a purposeful outcome,” Edmonds said.

At the beginning of each artist engagement, Edmonds works with corporate management to clearly define measurable outcomes, ways to track results from the artist’s residence, and what type of artist would fit best with the company.

Then Ayelet Danielle Aldouby, the special project’s curator at Residency Unlimited, works closely with IDEAS 40203 to source the right artists with the right skills.

Aldouby said the unique skills that artists possess are both marketable and useful to corporations.

“They see things that us normal people don’t necessarily see,” Aldouby says. “They are able to greet the platform differently, they’re able to look at the players differently, they’re able to form relationships and draw conclusions in a different way that is out of the box.”

The best choice is presented to the company, contracts are signed, and then the artist will work with the company for a four to six-week period after which the corporation and artist work together to produce a final report.

A final report is produced at the end of the residency. It will include the creation of a formal job description outlining what role a full time artist could play if employed by the organization, and the measured operational and financial impact of the artist involvement on the corporate project.

Venkat Venkatakrishnan, the lead facilitator at FirstBuild, already recognizes the value of having an artist’s eye in the business of home appliance manufacturing.

“It is where art meets engineering leading to manufacturing,” Venkatakrishnan said. “When people buy appliances it is, one, for the functionality, but also for the design—and that is why we are going into art, to get the best appliances for the people.”

Other collaborators in the XLerateArt initiative include Metro Louisville Government, including Louisville Forward and the Mayor’s Commission on Public Art.

Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.