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Art at Home

Markel Corp.'s Alan Kirshner thinks fine art brightens the work experience, and his employees are smiling.

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The reception area, with its large-format photograph by Sally Mann, photo-realistic painting by Steven Fox and stunning, slightly surreal triptych by Nancy Witt, offers just a taste of the visual treats to come. Among the collection of more than 300 paintings are works by local artists such as Sally Bowring, Javier Tapia, David Freed, Don Crow and Theresa Pollak. Nationally and internationally known artists are represented as well: Wolf Kahn, Claes Oldenburg, Barton Benes, Sol LeWitt.



Until now, Markel's employees and visitors have had the sole privilege of viewing these works. But on April 5-6, the collection will be open to the public for two events to benefit the Faison School for Autism.



A black-tie gala premiere will kick off the festivities April 5, with cocktails, gourmet food, music, an art auction and a chance to meet many of the artists represented in the collection, including Mann, Benes, and 102-year-old Pollak. The next day, an open house will feature raffles and a silent art auction in addition to an opportunity to view the collection.



The event is the brainchild of Alan Kirshner, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Markel and the co-founder, with Kirshner's former wife, Flo Guzman, of the Faison School for Autism.



Kirshner and Guzman donated the money to start the school in 1998 after their 18-month-old granddaughter was diagnosed with autism and had been helped by applied behavior analysis, a therapy that was not available in Richmond. Children at the Faison School are taught one-on-one using positive reinforcement and personal motivators. The intensive therapy is costly — $71,000 per child, per year — but it is the only proven method of best hope for long-term outcomes for autism treatment.



The school currently has space for 12 students from 18 months to age 6, but hopes to someday accept up to 40 students. In addition to working with its students, the Faison School provides home programming, training programs and consultations in Richmond's public schools and is a key component of the Autism Center of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Markel art events represent the first fund-raiser for the school.



Kirshner, who has chosen most of the works in Markel's art collection, is eager to share it with the public to support this cause. "We wanted to do something a bit unique. … and we have never thrown this open," Kirshner says. "The people at VCU and in the art world said we should really open it to the public."



Howard Risatti, a VCU art history professor and the acting chairman of the school's crafts department, has written the introduction to a catalog of the collection that will be distributed to patrons of the gala event. "I think it's a terrific collection," he says. "One of the things I like most about it is that it includes not only internationally famous artists … but also artists from Virginia. I think the selections are made not based on the star value of the artists' names but on the quality of the work."



According to Kirshner, who has worked for Markel for more than 40 years, the collection first came about in the late '70s when he was taking a lot of extended business trips to places such as San Francisco and London. "I don't play golf, so I had a lot of time to sightsee," he remembers. "I went to museums and galleries."



Kirshner had already amassed a sizable collection of equine art for his home, and he soon began purchasing small, inexpensive works for Markel's offices. As the collection grew, the company's management decided to invest in art for the offices rather than in fancy furnishings. When the company moved to its current offices the space was designed with neutral colors and largeexpanses of wall on which to showcase the art.



Art is all over Markel's offices — not only in the hallways, conference rooms and other public spaces, but in private offices and even some workers' cubes. "You can put more expensive wallpaper or tile up," Kirshner says, "but I think it's so much nicer to have art."



Mike Powell, who works in investments at Markel, agrees. A large painting by Richmond artist Bernard Martin hangs opposite his desk. "Any time I have a moment to rest it is uplifting to look at it," he says, while gazing up at the painting of people watching a John Wayne film. "I even went to Bernard Martin's studio looking for another painting to buy for my home."



Larry Bumgardner's "River Window" series hangs in the accounting department, at the request of members of the department. Kirshner points to a painting hanging in one of the company's lawyers' offices and says, "She had a bare wall so I gave her a price range and a few places she could go to pick out a piece of art for her wall, and this is what she got." When Kirshner is thinking about buying a new piece for the collection, he will often consult with the employees who will work closest to where the art will hang. If a Markel employee likes a particular work, they can request to have it hang in their office. They have even figured out a way to hang fine art in the office's cubicles.



"The art is relaxing, it is something for the employees to look at," Kirshner says. "We have lost only one senior executive in the past eight years. I don't know if the art makes a difference or not, but it seems to."



Beverly Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Gallery, which is helping to organize the events, believes art does make a difference in the work environment.



"I think it can give a workplace a real depth of spirit," she says. "I think it can change how people feel when they come to work. …I think that's really exciting when you have someone who has been really moved by a piece of art. When that happens in your office, I think that's pretty amazing." S





The Gala Premiere of The Markel Corporate Art Collection takes place Friday, April 5, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. in the Markel Building.





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