Eighteen months before Neiman Marcus was scheduled to open here at the Shops at Willow Bend, Neiman’s corporate art curator Julie Kronick was poring over architects’ plans for the three retail floors and, with a yellow highlighter, marking areas where the word "art" appeared on the blueprints.(Collections are permanent, and do not shift or rotate after placement.)

There would be, after hundreds of phone calls and visits to galleries and artists’ studios in the region, 176 pieces prominently displayed throughout the store representing 44 Texas painters and sculptors.

"No matter what area of the country that you go into, you find interesting people doing interesting things,’’ said Kronick, whose background includes a liberal arts degree from the University of Texas and worked at one of the Leo Castelli galleries in Manhattan "The good artists aren’t just in New York and San Francisco."

Unlike the architecture of many Neiman Marcus stores, the artwork has less of an attachment to its surroundings, beyond the fact that locals have produced it.

"The art collection is one collection," said Kronick. "I almost think of it like each store is a microcosm of the whole. Within each store we work with the space provided. When we can, we try to include the local artists, which is what sets each store apart."

One sweltering September morning, Kronick stood in front of one of her favorite acquisitions at the Willow Bend store, a cool, square wall of 27 multi-colored blown glass drops. Kronick worked with Dallas artist Joe Bowman to conceptualize the piece, right down to what colors the drops would be. The installation, which fills an entire 9 x 11 foot wall, separates fine jewelry from women’s shoes.

Bowman’s work, like nearly every other piece of art in the store, was commissioned, though artists have been known to submit their portfolios to Kronick and have pieces purchased from their existing collections.

"Everything that we collect is abstract, or nonrepresentational. Nonrepresentational because it’s not only the art, but the process, the artist behind it," she said.

Often, the art doesn’t seem to have a direct correlation to its environment, as in the case of two pieces in the Willow Bend store: Kevin Tolman’s painted FedEx envelopes, which line a hallway leading to women’s dressing rooms, or the 500-pound Jesus Moroales granite sculpture called "Disc Spiral" on the second floor.Nonetheless, sometimes the art just happens to sync with the department it’s located in.

Also at the Willow Bend store, artist Joseph Havel’s "Collar Sphere," a bronze sculpture of men’s shirt collars has has been placed near a necktie display. "Figure Seated," a sculpture by Frances Bagley, is an oversized abstract of a woman’s figure made from woven reeds and steel, is located in the women’s shoe department behind a tableful of Chanel heels.

In front of Bowman’s wall of glass, entitled, "Glass Garden I," is an interactive video screen that presents a four-minute documentary of Bowman and the glassblowing process.

Customers can also touch a video image of Stanley Marcus’ face to hear his philosophy on the importance of art — a particularly fitting touch as Marcus was an avid art collector who made it a point to try to educate his customers in the only classroom he had available to him: his stores.

In 1939, Marcus borrowed 20 Gauguins from private collectors and commissioned a series of ballgowns based on the colors of his Tahitian series. The clothes sold out and art lovers thronged to Dallas to see the paintings.

As he said in "Quest for the Best," a group of his essays published in 1979, "Most important of all was the fact that thousands who didn’t know anything about Gauguin were exposed to his paintings unwittingly and went away enriched, at no cost."

Though Neiman Marcus does not sell the pieces displayed in its stores, associates are equipped with notebooks with details on each artist in the store, the displayed work, and how a customer can contact the artist for more information.

"It’s about environment and education," said Kronick. "In The Book and Entree magazines, there are pieces about the artists, and that again, is educating the customer that there’s more to that painting on the wall than a pretty picture."

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