Abstract: Power and Patronage: Southern California Edison's Corporate Art Commissions

Monica Jovanovich-Kelley


In 1931, the Southern California Edison Company opened its new headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. The Edison Building symbolized corporate confidence, authority, and permanence during a time of economic instability and mounting criticism toward private utilities. Mitigating these threats, Edison embarked on a campaign to reshape public opinion with a sizeable portion dedicated to commissioning four artists to create artwork for the buildings lobby. This paper aims to resituate these commissions within an emerging understanding of modernity that pairs the time period's growing interest in arts education with a simultaneous distrust of big business. I argue that the inclusion of public art within the Edison Building was a way to transform an extremely private space of a powerful corporation into a quasi-public, museum-like space that emphasized Edison's message of claimed "public" ownership and their role as a benevolent public servant. This paper highlights the larger concepts that emerge beyond that of simple corporate branding in the works by Hugo Ballin, Conrad Buff, R. Merrell Gage, and Barse Miller. The themes of labor, modernity's notion of progress, public pedagogy, and civic identity within the artworks reflect the complicated, and often paradoxical, relationship among the general public, civic spaces, and private corporations.