Walk the hallowed halls of most law firms, and you'll probably find the scales of justice and somber portraits of judges on the walls. But in the art collection at Barnes & Thornburg in Minneapolis, clients can find a business suit sprayed stiff with polyurethane, a pair of leather track shoes arched toward a narrow long-jump pit, and a wood and steel bench that once was mistaken for scaffolding instead of a work of art.

As if that's not enough to plead the law firm's case for creativity, nearly every piece in its art collection also is for sale.

The unusual office exhibit is the result of a partnership between Barnes & Thornburg and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). The firm displays about 50 pieces of art for six months at a time instead of purchasing pieces for a permanent collection. Twice a year MCAD installs art from its students, alumni and faculty in the common areas of the law firm's space.

"We used to lease most of our art, but this time we wanted a partnership that tied into the community," said Howard Rubin, managing partner at Barnes & Thornburg. "The law firm can display beautiful art at a nominal cost to the firm, and MCAD artists get exposure to a new audience."

At a time when revenue is declining at many law firms, building an art collection has gone the way of conspicuous consumption.

"There's a big pullback in spending for corporate art collections," said Annie Metzger at Circa Gallery in Minneapolis. "It's hard to justify it at a time when departments are being shut down and people are being let go."

Large law firms such as Faegre & Benson and Lindquist & Vennum that have extensive, permanent collections with hundreds of pieces valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars are in maintenance mode, not adding to or subtracting from their collections, according to representatives at both firms.

While Barnes & Thornburg's art collection might look opulent, the firm is quick to note that the pieces are only "on loan" from MCAD artists. Clients who admire the art don't have to wonder if they're indirectly paying for pricey pieces, although the firm does pay about $5,000 a year for framing and installation. Office staff, lawyers or clients can purchase the art, but it cannot be removed until the exhibit changes.

When client Mitchell McMillen of Edina went to a meeting at Barnes & Thornburg's offices, he commented on how much he liked one of the large paintings. When Rubin told him it was for sale for $1,500, McMillen bought it on the spot.

"At a gallery, that painting would have been $5,000, minimum," the art collector said.

While prices range from $100 to $7,500, most of the 50 pieces are under $1,000. They include paintings, photography, sculptures, furniture and animation. But don't look for prices posted on the wall, as they are in a neighborhood coffee shop. A booklet with information about prices and artists is kept at the reception desk and shown to clients or visitors on request.

Deal overcame obstacles

The idea for collaboration started when Rubin was visiting a client at her office on the MCAD campus. Acknowledging his firm's tiny art budget, he asked if any works were available. He was put in touch with Lars Mason, the college's director of academic services, who does off-campus exhibitions. Mason wasn't immediately sold on the idea.

"At first, I wasn't interested in putting student art in a corporate gallery that's not very accessible," he said. Then Mason visited the space -- gray and white walls with sleek, modern architecture. "When I saw how beautiful the space is, I instantly wanted it."

Some students and alumni who were asked to have their work featured weren't initially thrilled with the idea, either. Minnesota landscape artist Sarah Wieben said her first reaction was lukewarm: a salable piece of work out of commission for six months in a law firm?

"I went to the opening [last October] not expecting much, but I was bowled over," Wieben said. "It's a glam space, the art looks fabulous and we've all received exposure."

One of her pieces is on a short list for possible purchase.

In choosing MCAD, Rubin wanted to support local upcoming artists, but one unexpected benefit has been a stronger connection with clients.

"The art serves as an icebreaker," Rubin said. When the art was leased, visitors rarely said anything about it. "Now, they not only comment on the art, but many ask for a tour. It's a nice way to get to know them personally and professionally."

Artwork invites explanation

Like a good host, Rubin is happy to give tours. While his artistic tastes lean traditional, he gets almost giddy explaining some of the contemporary art on display.

For instance, a lot of people are quick to dismiss David Bradberry's drawing "Cold Day, January" as a large, white piece of paper with a gray smear on it, but Rubin asks them to look closely at the faint smudge for a matchbook-sized pencil drawing of a cabin in the snow.

Galen David's pastiche of newspapers brushed with a thick layer of acrylic black paint gives ordinary newspaper sheets a quilt-like appearance. To some viewers it's paradoxical that newspaper pages could look like a quilt. To others, the barely readable print under the paint is a subtle comment on censorship, Rubin said.

While he has accepted pieces that push the envelope, Rubin draws the line at anything that could be considered offensive or controversial.

"No nudity and no obvious political statements," he said. He also nixed an illustration of a head of an animal with its tongue hanging out as "too gross."

One piece that some visitors find provocative is Jeffrey Grutter's oil painting "Patrick" -- an ominous figure in a hazardous materials suit crouching in a foggy background. "Some people love it. Some are disturbed by it," Rubin said.

Two of the more popular pieces in the collection are placed in a spot easily overlooked -- the bathrooms. Small flat screens showing a short animated video loop await unsuspecting visitors.

"Whenever a guest goes in the bathroom, I know they'll be in there for an least three minutes," Rubin said. "That's the length of time it takes to watch the entire video."

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com.