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Lining up Picassos by the water cooler

When you spend your days working on the 10th floor of an office building in Chicago, which could just as easily be the 15th floor of an office building in Baltimore, it is refreshing to be able to look up from your desk and see something other than a sooty skyline.

At least, that's the way Carole Cohen, a vice-president of New England Merchants National Bank in Boston, feels when she glances up at a surrealistic Dali painting on her office wall.

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Ms. Cohen and countless other business people are brightening up often drab work environments with everything from Renoirs to Raphaels.

The business world is embracing art as almost never before, and artists are doing everything but moving their easles onto company sites. Some companies are collecting works as an investment, others just to improve office environments.

More than 1,000 US corporations are seriously collecting art, estimates the Arts and Business Council Inc. Hundreds of these have established permanent collections, which vary in style as much as corporate logos themselves.

"Abstract and minimalist art is particularly popular with businesses because the paintings often tend to be large and colorful," says Mary Sweet, a Boston-based art consultant.

One may not expect to find primitive art adorning the walls of an industrial equipment manufacturer. But if you walk the corridors of Deere & Co. in Moline, Ill., that is what you see. And granted, Edward Hopper didn't paint by numbers, but, IBM, a firm that has dealth very successfully with numbers over the years, has a well-stocked collection of his works and others by American masters in its Bethesda, Md., complex.

Another firm with an eye for American art is Blount Inc., a construction company based in Montgomery, Ala. Blount, together with 30 major corporations such as Westinghouse, Citibank, and US Steel Corporation, has put together a show entitled "Art, Inc: American Paintings from Corporate Collections." The exhibition, the first of its kind, has traveled to major museums throughout the United States and parts of South America.

The Chase Manhattan Bank, behind the leadership of David Rockefellar, was one of the first corporations to establish a serious art collection. It started compiling works as early as 1959, partly to decorate its new, 60-story Manhattan office complex. Today the bank owns more than 6,000 works (valued at $7 million) by 2,000 different artists.

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Yet Monets and Matisses are not just being hung in new office complexes. Art is also being used to brighten up a few grimy manufacturing plants. Some company officials argue that putting art in the workplace boosts employee morale and productivity as well.

Whether it does or not, workers do take notice of changes in their office environments. This was evidenced when the Bethlehem Steel Corporation decided to move several life-sized statues of steelworkers from a working area at one of its plants last year. The workers complained, as if a favorite co-worker had been unjustly dismissed, and the statues were returned.

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