Drew Bennett on Using Art to Build Community

In 2007 Bennett, a young Bay Area-based artist, was hired by Mark Zuckerberg to paint the walls of Facebook’s Palo Alto offices, a project that took him four months. Five years after he completed his initial art project, Bennett returned to Facebook and created the company’s now thriving Artist-in-Residence program. As the Founder and Director of the program, Bennett has the opportunity to seek out artists and to commission them to create works inside Facebook’s office. The artists are treated like employees and spend anywhere between one to four months on-site. In addition to painting works in the offices, each artist is also required to spend some time in the company’s Analog Research Lab, a silkscreen studio where many of the prints and posters that line the office walls are created.

Drawing on his experience both as an artist and at Facebook, Drew Bennett will be giving a talk at If So, What? about bridging connections between art and the community on Sunday, April 29 at 1:45 p.m. We had the chance to catch up with him and learn more about his work, and what he’ll be talking about at If So,What?.

If So, What?: Can you start by telling us a little bit about how the Facebook Artist-in-Residence program came about, and how your experience creating murals in the office inspired you to create this ongoing and engaging program?

Drew Bennett: As a young artist I navigated the art scene naturally, investigating how and where art and community intersected. This experience in the Bay Area led me to believe that the commodification of rarified objects does not serve the process of artists making the most creative and innovative work possible. The best art comes out of new experimentation and exploration.

My preoccupation with supporting artist communities led me to propose, design, and implement an Artist-in-Residence program a few years after I was first commissioned as an artist by the company in its early days. They trusted me to transform their space, and I spent long hours painting natural wonders on the walls, scaling up my work in new and ambitious ways. The rigor of my practice inspired the employees and vice versa. We were all working towards a positive, collective experience.

I knew early on that I wanted to pitch the idea of expanding this opportunity to include more artists.  A decade and hundreds of projects later, our internal community has come to expect these opportunities to broaden their perspectives and understand others through witnessing new approaches to creativity. We emphasize the handmade—artwork that is imbued with energy, integrity and care. We’re not building an art collection. We’re supporting the growth and development of local artists.

ISW: You’re an artist and you also work with artists, can you talk about how your own works informs the way you work with other artists, and how it shapes what you are looking for as you seek out new artists-in-residence?

DB: Being an artist-run program within a corporation is unique. At headquarters, artists become our colleagues and we work collaboratively to plan and support installations directed by them.

Working collegially is important for growth in all fields, and especially for artists who are often isolated in their studios. We frequently have multiple artists on site at a time, and they often network, support each other, or collaborate while experimenting on our walls and in our screen-printing lab.

ISW: For If So, What? you are going to give a talk called “Designing Authentic Intersections between Art and Community.” What should audiences expect from your talk?

DB: Our art program has helped build community internally while supporting the art community externally. Audiences should expect to see an artist who started a residency program inside a rapidly growing corporation. My main topic will be the intersection of art and outdoor nudity.

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ISW: Why do you think art is so important in a work environment? How have you seen people respond?

DB: Our artists inspire creativity and a moment for reflection and mind expansion in a world where employees are required to face screens most of the day as they navigate their way through this nascent, massively-expanding industry that impacts humanity in previously unexplored ways. We don’t want an insular community within our company. We want to keep our doors open for diverse, creative perspectives.

ISW: Are there any particularly notable moments that have happened since launching your program that stand out to you?

DW: The notable moments are countless and can be found in my tattered journals. From sleepless nights spent painting a three-story stairwell, to woodworking in a parking lot, to supporting artists all over the world, every day feels different and notable.

ISW: What is appealing to you about ISW? Why does it resonate with you?

DB: I’m up for any gathering of art supporters and colleagues I admire in Bay Area art communities and beyond. The relationship between art and the tech industry is a topic we’re all eager to share and unpack.