Back in spring, 2001, the Gallery at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Lawrenceville mounted an exhibit it called "Off the Wall." The show, featuring work by two generations of sculptors whose creativity had been incubated at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, literally moved "off the wall" and onto the grounds. Corporate employees and Lawrenceville residents were delighted to encounter a greensward embellished by unfamiliar and eye-catching works of sculpture.

Since then the Lawrenceville gallery curator, Kate Somers, has grown the concept with a major "Sculpture Project" that will encompass Bristol-Myers Squibb’s four major area campuses. The first show of seven works by seven tri-state artists opened in New Brunswick in mid-July, with a second set to follow in Hopewell in October. Two additional shows are scheduled to open next year at the Lawrenceville and Plainsboro campuses. Each show will remain at its location for two years.

Somers made her proposal to a team of people, explains Jayne O’Connor, associate director of corporate affairs. Bristol-Myers Squibb has 10 campuses and more than 8,000 employees in New Jersey. "From a corporate affairs perspective, we were interested in an outdoor art exhibition that could be shared with the community where our facilities our located and to bring members of the community onto our campuses," she says.

The company views this outdoor sculpture exhibit "as one of the ways we can say `thank you’ for the support that you give each day to our employees and this company," said Tom Primm, president of technical operations for Bristol-Myers Squibb, in his welcoming remarks. He also invoked an executive of the Lockheed Martin Corporation who has said: "Successful businesses do more than simply pass through a community. They have a vested interest in living where the quality of life attracts the very best employees, customers, suppliers, and government, academic, and civic leaders. It is inconceivable that such a quality can exist where the arts are silent."

Bristol-Myers Squibb has a longstanding, ongoing art program through which it purchases artwork that hangs both in offices and hallways and common areas of its facilities. And although Lawrenceville is the only campus with an art gallery, the company has outdoor sculpture installed at a number of its sites. However, the Sculpture Project gives a new twist to the thorny matter of the acquisition and installation of public art. For this is a loan show with a purchase plan.

"We plan to invite employees at each of the four sites to vote for one piece of sculpture that they would like the company to acquire," Primm announced at the show’s opening. The selected work will remain permanently at the site.

Somers, who also serves as curator for the Bernstein Gallery of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, says the July launch of this ambitious Sculpture Project represents the culmination of 18 months’ planning.

"When I made the proposal in the fall of 2001, I received an immediate positive response," she says, "but time was not right. One year later the group came back to me and said let’s go ahead."

The New Brunswick show, located at the campus at 1 Squibb Drive, features works by seven nationally-recognized artists: Nancy Cohen, Melvin Edwards, Sydney Hamburger, Robert Lobe, Peter Lundberg, Christoph Spath, and Patrick Strzelec. Two of these artists are New Jersey residents: Cohen lives in Jersey City and Spath lives in Lambertville. The park is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Somers enlisted a panel of three experts to select artists for the first two shows. The panel is composed of Jeffrey Nathanson, who until recently was president and executive director of the International Sculpture Center in Hamilton, Alejandro Anreus, professor of art history at William Paterson University, and visual artist Sheba Sharrow.

The selection process for the first show began with a request to the sculpture advisory committee to recommended a pool of artists. Each of the three members brought the names of artists whose works they were closely familiar. And given the breadth of knowledge of the committee, this resulted in a group of around 40 recommended artists and their supporting materials. From this group, the first group of seven were chosen and a number of runner-ups were identified.

Once the advisory committee chose the sculptors, it was up to curator Somers to choose the individual pieces. "It isn’t until you go back and tell the artist they have been selected that you know what pieces are available," she says. "I tried to choose the best pieces that are most appropriate to the setting."

"At each campus where these exhibitions take place there is a different lay of the land. New Brunswick provides an intimate park-like setting, whereas in Hopewell there is more open space. When you’re choosing sculpture you think in terms of the landscape and the seven works we’ll be placing in Hopewell include some more monumental works."

From here on, the selection process changes, also taking on an original twist. Each of the seven artists selected for New Brunswick was invited to nominate two to three additional artists to be considered for the next round, Somers says, and the names of these nominees was combined with the runners up from the first round to create a new pool.

Is there a danger that selected artists are just going to nominate their friends? "No," Somers replies. "To my mind this is a wonderful way of expanding the circle. Artists know who’s out there and who is doing good work, and I respect their integrity," she says. "Since they are part of this project, they want the bar to be set as high as it can go. At the same time, if they know some of the younger, emerging talent, I’m looking for those recommendations. The result has been a wonderful cross-section of artists. There was some overlap but we were also introduced to artists who were previously unknown."

Is this Somers’ biggest curatorial project to date? "It depends how you measure it," she says, "but physically yes. Yet I also take very seriously the work I do for the beautiful Bristol-Myers Squibb gallery in Lawrenceville. And at Princeton I value both the esthetic merits of the shows and their dialogue with students and faculty at the Woodrow Wilson School."

Sculpture Project , Bristol-Myers Squibb Park, 1 Squibb Drive, New Brunswick, 908-519-2000. Bristol-Myers Squibb hosts its first of a series of outdoor sculpture shows. Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free.

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