The Art of Being Progressive

This company's art collection reflects what it wants to be: innovative and stimultating.

One way to appreciate the distinctive culture at Progressive is to experience firsthand the environment that Peter Lewis has created at its headquarters in Mayfield Village, 30 minutes east of Cleveland. The sprawling complex could easily be mistaken for a contemporary-art museum. A walkway designed to resemble a stream winds playfully into an underground tunnel, thereby creating the illusion of being underwater. Sculptures of Styrofoam clouds, metal origami birds, and cartoonish, floor-to-ceiling evening gowns abound.

Lewis began collecting contemporary art in the early 1970s. The CEO found the works he was buying stimulating and innovative — exactly what he wanted Progressive to be. "Plain-vanilla walls are uninteresting," he says. "My hope is that nonrepresentational, off-the-wall art sends a message to our people that it's okay to think outside the lines."

They're getting the message. "A lot of the pieces toy with your perception of reality: What you see is not what you get, so don't make quick assumptions," says Dawn Boston, 38, a communications specialist who occasionally conducts tours.

You can say the same thing about Lewis's company. Nothing is sacred here — not even something as "plain-vanilla" as an annual report. Unlike most companies, which publish a dreary rundown of revenues, assets, and stock prices in their annual reports, Progressive commissions artists to illustrate each year's report around a unifying theme. In 1994, for example, the theme was diversity. Carter Kustera produced a series of colorful silhouettes that were inspired by the guests on daytime TV talk shows, with captions like "Meagan: Married to two men at the same time" and "Gil: It's not my fault that I'm fat."

What's Lewis's favorite piece? The 24-foot-high stick figures — Sumer I and Sumer II, by Larry Bell — outside his window. The first figure faces one of Progressive's buildings; the second figure stands behind, watching the first. "It's symbolic of the customer watching us and of our watching over the customer," Lewis says.

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