For professional artists, finding venues to display and sell art work has always been a challenge, but the quest for exposure may actually be undercutting their ability to prosper. A good example of this is art walks. Our cities are in the habit of using art walks to create a buzz and circulate visitors through business districts rather than cultural districts, causing artists and businesses to become accustomed to art work in commercial spaces being displayed for free. This is problematic because in a smaller art market with few collectors, such as ours, it is the patronage of banks, stores, restaurants, hospitals and offices that can sustain the livelihood of local artists; but insert the old cow-and-milk adage here and you can see that, as a whole, we are undermining our own efforts by devaluing the work.

Kaiser Permanente’s new family care facility in Thousand Oaks, on the other hand, is doing more with art than just decorate. With the expertise of arts consultant and curator Joanna Burke, the building’s art work plays an integral role in Kaiser Permanente’s mission to treat the total health of its patients — mind, body and spirit. And by purchasing multiple works by 12 local artists, the center gave a booster shot to the local arts economy, setting a standard of quality for other businesses to aspire to.

Having spent more than two decades working with Kaiser Permanente, Burke is able to attest to the company’s commitment to using design to assist in care, by consciously combining colors, lighting, furnishings and art with sensitivity to the stresses associated with seeking health care. As Linda Donner, department administrator at the Thousand Oaks center explains, “We really try to make an environment where you feel a little comfort, a little relief.”

Burke, who lives in Malibu, felt that if she made the center “a celebration of the Conejo Valley,” its patients could draw strength and inspiration from their natural surroundings, both in and out of the clinic. To find local work that exemplifies this, she went to arts associations, studios, galleries and art walks, and met and formed relationships with the artists. The works selected were either original or commissioned pieces by Betty Amador, Ki Cho, Carolyn M. Counnas, Judith Crowe, Phyllis Doyon, Howard Ehrlich, Pamela Fong, Tom Gamache, Dennis Griffin, Christine Leong, Elizabeth Miller and Judy Winard. The paintings, pastels, watercolors, giclée prints, photography, fiber art and ceramics included in the installation evoke the sensations and spirit of the area’s lush landscape, wildlife and open spaces. For Burke, having been able to source 100 percent of the art work locally is a testament to both the quality of artists in the Conejo valley and its spectacular, inspiring landscape. For some artists, it is the first health care facility in the region to actually purchase work, rather than displaying it on loan.

It is not just showing art work for free that can be problematic for the local art scene, it’s also the haphazard way in which it is often displayed in these spaces that can diminish both the work and the site where it’s being shown. Burke reminds us that these arrangements often lack the gifts of the curator — the person caring for the space, the art work and the experience of the viewer simultaneously. According to Burke, curators “seek out and champion artists, give them professional direction, and can scale the right piece for the right place.” Curators can also help business owners just by having the authority to determine quality. Cities with art walks might consider giving small stipends to develop an army of local curators who can help both artists and businesses find the right fit. That way, when visitors see the artwork, especially if they travel in from out of town to attend, they are left with the best possible impression of the local arts scene.

Another solution would be to lease artwork to businesses. “If a business wants to host changing exhibits of the work of local professional artists, rental agreements should be drawn up giving the artists, at the very least, a modest sum for the use of their professional product,” Margaret Travers, director of the Ventura County Arts Council, suggests. “Part of the agreement would include a commission to the business owner in the event that a piece of art was sold as a result of its being exhibited in the business location.” And for businesses owners who want to forge deeper bonds between their missions and their customers, a professional curator can translate those concepts into something tangible, experiential and even, as with the Kaiser facility, unforgettable. 

Kaiser Permanente, Thousand Oaks is located at 322 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. For more information on the artists and art work at Kaiser Permanente, Thousand Oaks, please write to The Ventura County Arts Council is working on a template of a leasing contract. For information, write to