During the recent recession, Valerie Cooper, an art consultant in Stamford, saw her list of high-profile corporate clients — one by one — slash their budgets for the exhibits she curated for their lobbies and offices.
Some clients, like GE, had been with her for 10 years. The Fairfield-based conglomerate would have about 20 art pieces, organized around themes of culture and diversity, showcased in the lobby of its corporate headquarters. The exhibits would then change every two months.
It was her dream job. But after the cutbacks, “The work became more taxing,” she recalled on Monday during an interview in the East Side office complex where her firm, Picture That, is based. Her clients had less money to spend but still demanded high-quality pieces. At that point, Cooper, who in 2001 left her job managing a global team of IT experts for Goldman Sachs to pursue a long-simmering passion in art, re-examined her business model.
New hospital environments
As a curator, she was often tasked with finding art on loan, a challenging job in terms of obtaining the right artist as well as the logistical hurdles involved with shipping the work. So she decided to focus more on projects that allowed her to acquire art on behalf of an organization interested in maintaining a permanent collection.
In 2010, she received a call from Yale-New Haven Hospital, which wanted help finding artwork to fill three floors of a new office building on its campus.
It was her first foray into the fast-growing health-care sector — one that eventually led to work with Bridgeport Hospital, part of the Yale-New Haven Health System network.
As hospitals become more patient and amenity-focused with carefully thought-out surroundings, Cooper has seen her business move into a new and unexpected direction.
Today, the bulk of her clients are made up of health-care organizations. She recently worked with Saint Francis Hospital to install artwork for its new five-story 57,753-square-foot medical facility in Hartford that is set to open this July.
Working with a budget she described as “in excess of $100,000,” Cooper helped the hospital select 72 photographs depicting Hartford’s history and culture.
Because of her work with Saint Francis Hospital, Cooper was awarded “Supplier of the Year” earlier this month by the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council, a nonprofit group that promotes and fosters relationships between minority-owned businesses.
She is certified by the group as a Category 1 business, which means that her revenue is less than $1 million.
The 51-year-old Stamford native has her eye on getting her business to the next level. She is currently tackling her biggest assignment to date: finding art to outfit a 100,000-square-foot outpatient cancer center in Trumbull for Bridgeport Hospital.
The development broke ground in 2011. As part of her job, she must assess and curate space that is still in the raw stage of architectural drawings. She has two years to get the job done; the building is set to be completed by 2016.
To her delight, Bridgeport Hospital has asked for original artwork by Connecticut artists. “I get to tap into artists in my own backyard,” she said.
Working with hospitals comes with a set of clear objectives. Hospitals, she said, will often commission so-called healing art — pieces that depict tranquil scenes like those taken from nature.
Hospitals have focused on more welcoming and sleeker design over the years, thus drawing comparisons with the hospitality industry. It has gotten to the point, Cooper said, where visitors at newly built or renovated hospitals may be prompted to ask, “Am I at the W (Hotel) or am I at the hospital?”
Her goal, she said, is for the art to “speak to the decor and audience at the same time.”
With the redevelopment of Stamford Hospital currently underway, the prospects for Cooper’s new line of business look good.
`Still in love’
Expanding her services has been part of staying nimble in an industry vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of the economy. She started out while she was still at Goldman Sachs during the late 1990s by operating a weekend gallery out of her home in Glenbrook. But sales were hard to come by and she eventually decided that the retail art business was not for her.
A computer programmer equipped with an MBA from Columbia Business School, she had worked at Goldman Sachs for 15 years before handing in her resignation letter the day before Sept. 11, 2001. That would have been the time to change her mind, but she forged ahead with her plans.
She said her biggest fear when she started was that once she committed herself full-time to art, it would no longer captivate her the way it did when it was just a hobby.
“Guess what?” she said with a broad grin. “I’m still so in love with it.”