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Philly-centric art in the new Comcast Tech Center seeks to connect its sky-high offices with the streets below

Comcast’s massive collection challenges the traditional straight-edge ideas of corporate art, and looks to reconnect its employees with their city.

The Comcast Tech Center is filled with art, such as this piece titled "Emotional Gradient" by Jaime Salm (MIO) & Karen Harmelin. The piece is comprised of Glass, laminated plywood, and digitally printed film.
The Comcast Tech Center is filled with art, such as this piece titled "Emotional Gradient" by Jaime Salm (MIO) & Karen Harmelin. The piece is comprised of Glass, laminated plywood, and digitally printed film.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

With a soft smile and a tilted head, a bodybuilder in her 20s who lives with deafness relays the phrase “I love you” in sign language. Her photo is broken up into four closeups of her face, revealing a cascade of emotions that span the walls of the 21st floor of the Comcast Technology Center.

On the next wall over, another photo captures the bright smile of a veteran in his mid-40s, who lost his leg during his third tour in Afghanistan. He wears the same scarf around his neck that he and his comrades wore in battle.

These images feature just two of the dozens of subjects captured by Philadelphia-based photographer Karen Harmelin and Jaime Salm, creative director of MIO Design Studio. The pair spent five days photographing various Philadelphia actors, from ages 8 to 80. One sings, another laughs, a third points off camera, all building a “wheel of micro emotions,” the tiny transitional facial expressions that occur as briefly as 1/25th of a second.

“You experience every one of these emotions. It takes you through that whole spectrum all at once and on a grand scale,” said Harmelin.

She and Salm are two of the 40 local artists telling stories on the walls and halls of the Comcast Technology Center, the company’s $1.5 billion headquarters that is finally opening its Four Seasons Hotel to the public on Monday. Their photographs are more vivid and personal than what you might expect to find decorating a 60-story skyscraper of a $188 billion corporation. Also surprising are the dozens of hand-painted murals, towering abstract sculptures, and hand-crafted furniture.

Art is strategically embedded in Philadelphia’s tallest building to spur reflection, creativity, and sometimes a sense of play. The colorful contemporary pieces seek to connect workers to their workplace, ultimately making them more productive and engaged with team members.

As soon as any of the 4,000 employees enter the technology center, they’re greeted by work from internationally known artists, such as a massive cast-iron and mirrored tetrahedron created by British artist Conrad Shawcross, known for mechanical creations that skim the realms of geometry, philosophy, and physics.

But it’s the local art in the floors above that seeks to evoke the streets below. Comcast’s massive collection challenges the traditional straight-edge notions of corporate art and looks to reconnect its employees with their city, said Claudia Vick, partner of Vick Art Advisors, a New York City-based art advisory firm, who helped select and coordinate each installation.

“I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and this is the most ambitious corporate art program I’ve seen,” said Vick, whose past clients range from Apple Computers to the New York Times.

It’s not uncommon for large corporations to invest in local art, said Rebecca O’Leary, a Philadelphia-based art consultant who specializes in corporate installations.

“You want to show your workers, your investors, that you’re invested in the community,” O’Leary said.

Comcast did not release the amount that it spent on the artwork, but O’Leary said that an effort of this magnitude probably cost more than $10 million, including funds for the artwork, advisers, and installers.

“It’s significant amount of money to invest," she said. Comcast is putting money into the pockets of local working people while acquiring a “cultural and financial asset.”

The public can see the large sculptures in the entrance of the center, but there is no public access to the local art inside. Still, the company hopes to offer public tours beginning in early 2020.

Three years ago, Comcast approached Vick with a vision: to build a collection of art that tells Philadelphia’s story — its industrial past, current artistic culture, and the future of the technology being created in the building. Making this happen inside such a complex work space took months of research, hundreds of meetings and reviews, and years to complete.

Vick worked alongside folks from the New York interior design firm Gensler to create a theme for each floor, or sets of floors, and their common spaces. Then they researched artists who could build or install a piece that fit the concept.

Vick would then connect with the artists and ask them to submit a portfolio. If they were selected, the process became a conversation. Designs, colors, and layout went through multiple approvals from both Comcast and the artist.

Once all sides agreed, the installation was timed to the completion of each floor. By the end, it brought Philadelphia’s artistic community together in one vertical cityscape.

That space could look like the sea of hundreds of iconic Philly words, such as “Fishtown," “Whiz wit,” and “hoagies,” spray-painted onto the walls of floors 29, 30, and 31. The creator, who goes by the name Jimmy of Glossblack LLC, is a Philly guy who was born here and uses his freehanded trademark graffiti to bring street art into the office.

But the space can also be as complex as the murals six floors up, where “Open Access” assembles multi-colored polygons to oppose homogeneity. The large human figures that span across floors 36, 37, and 38 may look similar, but each is unique. The artist, Odili Donald Odita, wanted this to represent Comcast’s employees.

"I don’t think people are just homogeneous,” said Odita, who was born in Nigeria but now lives in Conshohocken and teaches at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture. "And these differences create a corporation.”

It took Odita more than four months to decide on the shapes, layout, and colors. Then an additional four to six weeks for four assistants and him to complete the painting.

“How you can identify these figures … how you see them dressed differently or existing differently is to understand the concept of uniqueness," not only at Comcast but among the city’s artists.

“People used to think you had to go to New York to experience art,” Odita said, “but Philadelphia has so much wealth of culture and so much wealth of cultural information that this project tapped into.”