Standing at the Intersection of Business and Society: Reflections from a Place where Nature and Modernism Co-exist
Earlier this month, I was thrilled to spend three days in Aspen, Colorado to experience a rich diet of intellectual dialogue, immersion in unspoiled nature, and innumerable opportunities to discuss and debate the critical role that business plays in society. As both an academic and CSR (corporate social responsibility) practitioner, the experience provided an opportunity for me to reflect on the history of the Aspen Institute as well as my personal role in understanding and teaching the many dimensions of how the private sector can be a positive catalyst for societal change. The experience also reminded me that business has played a critical role in supporting and promoting the arts in America.
The Aspen Institute was born at the intersection of business and society when new models of corporate cultural responsibility were beginning to evolve in post-war America. The Institute was the vision of Walter Paepcke, an industrialist from Chicago. Under Walter Paepcke’s leadership, the Container Corporation of America (CCA) embraced cutting-edge product design and advertising while an overarching philanthropic/humanistic worldview permeated all aspects of the business. Paepcke self-consciously sought to wed a European modernist design aesthetic to his manufacturing, design, and advertising. In particular, Herbert Bayer played a critical role in driving modernist ideals into many aspects of the Container Corporation’s image while at the same time helping Paepcke advance humanist ideals. As a student and teacher at the Bauhaus, Bayer was a pioneer in design integrating typography and photography into innovative graphic compositions, which signaled a new direction for corporate advertising. Bayer’s advertising designs for CCA incorporated text and image in a non-narrative manner that evoked more abstract and conceptual associations.
Paepcke, in 1949, chose Aspen as the site for a celebration of the 200th birthday of German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The 20-day gathering attracted such prominent intellectuals and artists such as Albert Schweitzer and Thornton Wilder and an international crowd of more than 2,000 attendees. Not surprisingly, Herbert Bayer was hired by Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to design the Aspen Institute campus. Although the campus has grown, the integrity of Bayer’s design and vision is sustained. Clearly influenced by Bauhaus and International Style principles, Bayer’s buildings combine basic geometric forms with industrial materials such as steel frames and concrete blocks. The minimalist interior spaces also reflect Bayer’s integration aesthetic by incorporating posters, simple furniture, and primary colors.
Paepcke’s humanistic vision was nurtured during his tenure as a corporate leader and evolved into a sustainable public forum for society known as the Aspen Institute. Similarly, his company’s visual art collection landed at the Smithsonian Institution, where scholars can access this critical contribution to modern American commercial advertising. While Paepcke’s vision for Aspen physically stands as an enduring example of corporate cultural responsibility, his humanistic aspirations have been sustained and nurtured by year-round public programming.
The intersection of business, society, and the arts often is filled with tension, opposition, and trade-offs, but at Aspen they come together to create a unifying and inspiring place. So … how do we rediscover the powerful ways that business and the arts can create value for society? Among the many options, I suggest three:
- arts organizations should consider projects that address social causes that map to the corporation's larger social responsibility goals, and consider the non-financial resources that companies can bring to the table such as pro-bono and skills-based engagement;
- business and arts leaders should consider taking advantage of new models of social impact investing—Corporate Venture Capital Funds, for example, have been hailed as a new and effective way for both large and small companies to engage in social investment;
- the landscape is ripe for new models of business/arts collaboration where each contributor plays an equal role in defining challenges and designing solutions with the greater goal of sustainable value creation.
Although we cannot re-create the context, inspiration, and leadership that led to the creation of the Aspen Institute, we can all be pioneers in encouraging new models of corporate cultural responsibility where the arts enjoy secure and sustainable support from the private sector.