When Equity Industrial Partners asked architect Brent Maugel to redesign a former computer factory in New Hampshire, he convinced the developers the high-end touches should not be pyramid skylights or custom-crafted banisters, but original art.
So now, colorful photographs of flowers and waterscapes hang in the cafeteria, the hallways feature playful abstracts on aluminum, and elsewhere in the former Digital Equipment Corp. factory are framed photos showcasing the building’s early days. For $20,000, the developer added vivid colors and eye-catching images that warm the common areas.
That was a boon for the art dealer who supplied the works, Lawrence Powers of Acton.
“I’m feeling a change in the wind,’’ he said. “People are less hunkered down and feel more optimistic about the future.’’
With the commercial real estate sector experiencing a burst of activity after a long lull, designers and art dealers report that developers and corporate tenants are willing to spend money on artworks that both decorate and help humanize corporate spaces with color and intrigue.
“There is a boom on the horizon,’’ Maugel said. “You are seeing a lot of construction, and whenever there is a building going in, or apartments, there are walls.’’ He said half of the 52 commercial projects he is working on involve purchasing art.
Companies that buy work from art dealers and galleries can spend up to $30,000 for a 120,000-square-foot space, Maugel said. Biotechnology, life sciences, and venture capital firms are the latest to take the plunge.
The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln has gained 12 members in its corporate art loan program this year, said Elizabeth Geller, head of the program. Subscriptions cost $1,500 to $10,500 a year and grant members access to original, contemporary works by artists in the area. It is one of the few museums in the area to offer this.
The program slumped in 2007, when the economy and real estate sectors cooled, but climbed to 91 corporate members last year and is now at 97.
“All arrows are pointing to more momentum,’’ Geller said. “Within the last year and a half we are feeling the pace. We are very energized, motivated, and thrilled with the commitment to share more art.’’
One deCordova member is George Haddad, president of Liaison International, a Watertown information technology company. He just increased his annual art budget by $1,000 to $5,000, and among the works on loan from the museum are a pair of photographs depicting a dog’s eye view of a park. He hung them in a conference room where his employees can enjoy them.
“All of this is to make employees feel comfortable, feel at home, and increase the stickiness factor,’’ said Haddad, who goes the extra mile to retain a creative workforce. “They have their eyes open here more than they do at home.’’
Some employees said they liked what they saw.
“There’s work by a real artist on the wall and not a velvet Elvis,’’ software developer John Saylor said of the colorful abstracts, such as a contemporary take on a still life by artist Judith Larsen.
“It helps spark imagination,’’ he said, “and gets you thinking of something other than making money.’’
The history of corporate art goes back centuries. In the 1400s, European banks commissioned artists to do murals, and in the 1930s and ’40s, US corporations hired artists to feature their brands in advertisements and buttress their images.
Art purchases made by developers to enhance a space and attract tenants caught fire about 50 years ago.
“There was a move to create corporate campuses, and the National Endowment for the Arts decided it was a holistic and good thing to do to create an engaging workplace,’’ said Kim Maier, executive director of the Association of Professional Art Advisors, a New York-based organization of advisers and corporate art curators.
In Massachusetts, the Royal Sonesta Hotel Boston has an extensive art collection, from pop to minimal, and Neiman Marcus has a museum-like roster of blue-chip artists such as Warhol and Picasso.
Financial companies such as Wellington Management and Fidelity Investments also maintain art collections, but it remains to be seen if the recent spike in activity will affect this sector. A Fidelity spokesman, Adam Banker, said the company is “committed to supporting local artists in the regions we operate in, including Boston, but there has been no significant change’’ in its activities.
The types of companies that are interested in displaying art vary widely.
Suzan Redgate, executive director of the Copley Society of Art on Newbury Street in Boston, said that in the past few weeks she has fielded inquires from a venture capital firm, a company in the Boston Design Center, and a restaurant in Bay Village.
“It’s very current and exciting,’’ she said. “Hopefully, the sales will follow. We’ll take the good news while it’s here. Who knows what will happen tomorrow.’’