“It’s horrible — I love it,” says a blonde-wigged Carrie Brownstein to a photo-holding Fred Armisen, portraying a team of salespeople at Bad Art Good Walls, a fictional firm that supplies coffee shops with terrible art in a sketch from Portlandia. It’s funny, as Homer Simpson would say, ’cause it’s true.
Back in the day, it was possible for artists to get discovered by putting their art up in a business — think as far back as Parisian bars, or New York when Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns were young, or, as seen in the recent documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, Wayne White’s word paintings first getting attention on the walls of L.A. diner Fred 62. Nowadays, you play the word-association game with “coffee-shop art” and you get “soothing,” “earth-tone abstract,” “poor-but-proud Nicaraguan farmers” or, from the Bad Art Good Walls team, “forlorn redheaded women”— or, on the less corporate end of the spectrum, “the owner’s hippie aunt.” In 2013, is it possible to find art that goes beyond the purely decorative in places where people primarily go to eat, drink or buy stuff?
A great many artists in Philly find a clean, white-walled gallery setting in which the art is the primary draw important enough to band together and pay rent on the city’s many artist-run spaces. But many of those same people will tell you that any show, even if it’s not in the context of fine art, can be a good opportunity.
“It’s like a street performer,” says Adam Wallacavage. “If they’re good, people will stop; if not, they will walk by.” Wallacavage, whose ornate, octopus-limbed chandeliers were recently shown at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, is an alum of Space 1026 currently represented by Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York. He’s readily shown his work in retail locations like Tattooed Mom’s on South Street. He’s had bad experiences — like lending a chandelier to a salon that promised to sell it in a week and instead returned the work a year later covered in dust and fake blood. Still, Wallacavage says, showing in non-gallery settings can be a sort of litmus test of whether something is good or merely trendy. “An artist should prefer someone to fall in love with a piece as opposed to being taught to like it because it’s a popular thing to buy or it’s essential to collect.”
Artists around the city mentioned Benna’s Cafe in East Passyunk as an example of art and coffee working well together; the spot at Eighth and Wharton has been exhibiting the work of emerging artists, with opening receptions on second Fridays, since 2005, and many of the shows sell out.
Benna’s owner Nancy Trachtenberg explains that the commitment to changing and curating the art in the environment inspires costumer loyalty: “They appreciate that we go the extra mile to make their environment special.” Across town at the Random Tea Room in Northern Liberties, owner Becky Goldschmidt agrees, saying, “I enjoy having a new visual experience every month as well as hearing the positive feedback from viewers,” that the art is a “major part” of the warm atmosphere the Room conveys and that an artist’s followers help business.
One reason shows at Benna’s often sell out is that, on average, works are priced closer to the “impulse buy” end of the spectrum. “Nobody is going to buy an $1,800 oil painting at a dive bar,” says Hawk Krall, who has shown his food-inspired graphic works at a number of businesses, most recently at American Sardine Bar. On price, Beth Heinly, a new member of artist-collective gallery Vox Populi who’ll be showing at Benna’s this month, says, “I would rather buy art for $20 to $40 than a T-shirt — so if you’re thinking of showing at a coffee shop, market to me.”
But though artists showing at non-gallery spaces may adjust the prices of their works downward, they generally keep more of the money than they would if their work had sold at a gallery, as “restaurants or bars … typically take less of a percentage of the sales, or none at all,” says Krall.
Jerry Kaba, an installation artist involved with Practice Gallery [full disclosure: Annette Monnier is a co-founder of Practice Gallery], does work that doesn’t traditionally fit in a retail situation — his artist statement, about exploring the effects of industry on humanity, includes the sentence “Cancer, birth defects and most other afflictions are at an all-time high.” Still, he can compare showing work at Fishtown’s Rocket Cat Café with showing at a white-walled gallery. “I felt some people took the time to stop and appreciate it, and others just thought it was part of the cafe,” he says. However, “I often feel people don’t really look at the art in a gallery either — maybe the only difference is why they came in the door.”