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The curatorial coffee shop: Meet SLO's dominant art venue—the benefits, obstacles, and everything in between 

click to enlarge SURROUNDED BY SURREAL Local artist Lena Rushing sips a drink at Linnaea's Cafe. Her surreal paintings can be seen in the background; they currently cover both walls of the cozy café.

Photo By Jayson Mellom

SURROUNDED BY SURREAL Local artist Lena Rushing sips a drink at Linnaea's Cafe. Her surreal paintings can be seen in the background; they currently cover both walls of the cozy café.

A man freestyles on the piano in one corner of Linnaea's Cafe, complemented by the indie pop music playing over the speakers. A group of teens in another corner laugh and shriek their way through schoolwork. The hum of coffee shop white noise is interrupted now and then by baristas calling out drink orders, and the grind of the espresso machine sends caffeinated whiffs throughout the shop.

Local artist Lena Rushing's surreal paintings depicting women wrapped in everything from eels to elaborate ball gowns cover the walls. A customer stops, coffee mug in hand, to admire the large works before heading back to her sticker-covered laptop.

After around 20 years of selling her artwork in cafés, galleries, and museums around town, Rushing said it's her café buyers who tend to surprise her most.

"I had a guy spend two grand on this large piece that I had done," Rushing told New Times. "He would see it every day in a coffee shop when he would go get his coffee ... . He said, 'I'm not an art lover. I'm not an art collector. I didn't even know that I liked art. But when I would go home, I would think about this painting—and I want to buy it.'

click to enlarge ENHANCING THE EXPERIENCE At Ascendo Coffee, work by artist Vincent Bernardy adds color and character to the cafe's exposed brick walls. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • ENHANCING THE EXPERIENCE At Ascendo Coffee, work by artist Vincent Bernardy adds color and character to the cafe's exposed brick walls.

"This is a person that wouldn't be going to galleries or museums to look at art," Rushing continued. "We brought art to him."

As it turns out, this is how most locals consume art on a regular basis: not in a gallery or museum, but in a curatorial coffee shop. While SLO is fortunate to have a sprinkling of galleries and museums, it's the coffee shops that do the majority of the art hanging in town, according to Bettina Swigger, CEO of the Downtown SLO Association. A quick glance at a monthly Art After Dark map shows just how much coffee shops and similar spaces dominate as venues for local art display.

"In some ways, the coffee house is the gallery in San Luis Obispo, because of how few galleries there are," Swigger said.

The trend toward café art has plenty of benefits, as it allows people—like the man who bought Rushing's painting—a place to view art when they otherwise wouldn't. But it also raises questions and concerns around how the venue affects a viewer's experience with art, as well as the artist's ability to sell their work.

The truth is that the distinction between the curatorial coffee shop and the gallery or museum is not black and white. Programs like Art After Dark allow coffee houses to become an intentional viewing space for a moment. But after speaking with local curators, coffee shop owners, artists, and community leaders, it is clear that for better or worse the coffee shop has taken on a role in SLO that is wholly unique from the galleries and museums.

Drawing a distinction

Galleries and museums are perhaps the most traditional bridge between fine art and public access, and the basic elements of these institutions are relatively ubiquitous. The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is no exception.

Shuffled footsteps echo across SLOMA in hushed tones. The walls behind Adam Wolpert's Great Oaks exhibit are unadorned and not distracting. A few other museumgoers mill about, looking intently at the grand oil paintings that line the walls, each depicting a quintessential California oak tree. They don't enter the museum for another purpose—say, to get a coffee—only to haphazardly stumble upon the artwork. Rather, the museum or gallery is a space that centers the art above all else with its quiet environment and neutral sensory experience.

click to enlarge CAFé MEETS GALLERY Art After Dark attendees sip wine and enjoy a group show at Linnaea's Cafe. Owner Marianne Orme said she moves tables and provides an artist reception to turn her café into an art-focused space during this monthly event. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIANNE ORME
  • Photo Courtesy Of Marianne Orme
  • CAFé MEETS GALLERY Art After Dark attendees sip wine and enjoy a group show at Linnaea's Cafe. Owner Marianne Orme said she moves tables and provides an artist reception to turn her café into an art-focused space during this monthly event.

Events like Art After Dark enable coffee shops to emulate the experience of a gallery space—at least for one evening a month. At Linnaea's Cafe, owner and curator Marianne Orme makes an effort to put the artwork first during Art After Dark.

"We'll clear the center of the room so that people can stand and look at the art," Orme told New Times. At these monthly receptions, the public also has a chance to meet the artist.

Ascendo Coffee, a downtown café on Monterey Street, follows a similar model, making a point to extend its hours for Art After Dark so the evening is all about the art. Ascendo's manager and art curator, Jenna Madama, said that cafés have evolved into multifaceted spaces that think outside the coffee cup.

"It used to be more coffee-based: You'd have a picture of an espresso cup on the wall," Madama said. "Now I think it's more collaborative to be able to work together, host community, and to be able to participate in that."

But aside from those first Fridays, the majority of customers entering a coffee shop are not doing so to look at the walls. An encounter with the coffee shop's art, however moving or profound it might end up being, usually starts as a peripheral, adjacent experience.

While you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't been into a coffee shop sometime in the past year, just 24 percent of the U.S. adult population visited a museum or art gallery in 2017, according to a National Endowment for the Arts survey. In a place where cafés are the dominant art venue, as Swigger pointed out, it's likely that SLO residents are viewing art in cafés far more often than in spaces devoted solely to art.

In one sense, cafés have always served this type of purpose. Dating back centuries, the coffee shop has played a humanistic role in communities.

"Coffee houses started as an alternative to a bar," Orme said. "It used to be that the only thing you could drink that was safe was alcohol, and so people started drinking coffee as another beverage."

Coffee houses in 17th and 18th century London were hubs for prominent literary circles, political rebels, and other intellectuals.

"The classic role of the coffee house is to promote artists on all levels, be it visual artists, local artists, verbal artists, [or] just people sitting and talking," Orme said. "That's one of the reasons why Linnaea started the café."

click to enlarge COFFEE SHOP CURATOR Manager and curator for Ascendo Coffee Jenna Madama sips on a coffee in front of the café’s current display of paintings by artist David Zweifel. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • COFFEE SHOP CURATOR Manager and curator for Ascendo Coffee Jenna Madama sips on a coffee in front of the café’s current display of paintings by artist David Zweifel.

Ascendo Coffee's curator echoed this sentiment.

"A coffee shop is a host for community, and art is another community, so it's a nice way for them to collaborate together," Madama said.

And while museums and galleries also foster community among art lovers, coffee shops offer a more casual experience. The marrying of a community space with an art space can be less intimidating for those who don't view art regularly.

"That sense of community around the arts is awesome," said Rushing—whose work is currently on display at Linnaea's. "It's not what you get with a museum, where you go and sit quietly contemplating that badass Picasso, or whatever it is. It's a totally different experience that's absolutely unique to the coffee shop."

Allowing accessibility

As important as it is to maintain spaces where art aficionados can have a quiet moment with their favorite masterpiece, Henry A.J. Ramos, the head curator at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, pointed out that coffee houses can provide an access point that reaches a less art-seeking audience

"I'm not an art snob that says only art museums or galleries have good art," Ramos told New Times. "We live in a democracy and art should be democratized—it should be accessible."

With accessibility, Ramos said, comes an increased number of art appreciators, in turn strengthening the support for the community. Rushing agreed.

"When you take it to cafés, people who might not be exposed to original art ... develop an appreciation for art, [which] makes them more likely to support the arts," Rushing said.

In addition to making art more accessible to the consumer, local cafés can also provide opportunities for new and emerging artists. At Linnaea's, an annual show gives everyone a chance to show their work.

click to enlarge ART IN MANY FORMS Linnaea's Cafe in SLO doesn't limit itself to being a venue for visual arts: Musical performances are welcomed as well. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIANNE ORME
  • Photo Courtesy Of Marianne Orme
  • ART IN MANY FORMS Linnaea's Cafe in SLO doesn't limit itself to being a venue for visual arts: Musical performances are welcomed as well.

"We call it 'Hang it All.' It has to be [priced at] under $100, and it's open to everyone," Orme said. "We take no commission from that show ... . It's first come, first serve, and we make room for everybody. [For] people who want to be an artist or who like to paint, it gives them an opportunity to actually get on the wall."

Therefore, coffee shops are not only getting the art in front of more eyes, but also creating more inclusive opportunities for artists. It's often less expensive for both the artist and the venue to show original art in a café than in a gallery or museum.

click to enlarge IN THE PERIPHERY Ascendo Coffee customers work under colorful, three-dimensional pieces by local artist Vincent Bernardy. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • IN THE PERIPHERY Ascendo Coffee customers work under colorful, three-dimensional pieces by local artist Vincent Bernardy.

Looking at it from a supply-and-demand perspective, Downtown SLO CEO Swigger said that "if there were really a market for a ton of traditional, commercial art galleries to be opening in San Luis Obispo, it would be happening."

With a higher price tag for both the consumer and the artist at galleries and museums, it "goes back to the commercial viability of those places," she said.

A coffee shop has the luxury of taking little or no commission for the art that's sold off its walls because it's not the product that keeps the doors open. While art might enhance the overall coffee shop experience, adding value in a different sense, the low or nonexistent commissions mean it's not what's bringing in the big bucks.

With a gallery or museum, on the other hand, "It's very difficult to find an affordable space," Ramos said. "The square-foot price point is very high in most markets," especially markets that aren't swimming with art collectors.

For this reason, a coffee shop might offer an ease of access that a conventional space doesn't offer, and local artist Rushing has experienced this firsthand.

"It's easier to show in a café than a gallery," Rushing said. "Galleries have contracts and charge a [larger] commission."

What's missing?

As supportive as local coffee shops are of the arts community, the apparent move toward coffee shops as the overwhelmingly dominant venue is not necessarily a move in the right direction, Ramos said.

"I think it can have a diminishing impact on the value of the art, and not just in the commercial context, but in terms of how it's understood and studied," he said.

Artwork can be difficult to sell above a certain price at a café, and Ramos said it can drive down the value of art, which contributes to a vicious cycle that makes it difficult for galleries and museums to stay afloat, as these locations rely on more expensive artwork and the commissions they gain from it.

Orme spoke candidly about her experience selling high-priced art at Linnaea's.

"Some artists price their work way above what would ever sell here," she said. "One piece of work for $1,000, a couple pieces for $700—not a problem. But if every piece of artwork is four, five, six, seven thousand dollars, then it doesn't work here. That needs to be in a gallery."

Rushing said she has found success selling her work at coffee shops—sometimes more than at her gallery shows. However, she still sees the unique value of art-centric spaces.

"A museum has to preserve, to keep things for future generations to see," Rushing said. "You can do things in a gallery space that you absolutely cannot do in a café because a café has food and hot coffee and people moving around. In a gallery space, you can have interactive art, performance art, you can have enormous, mind-blowing art installations—and you can't have any of that in a café."

Orme echoed this sense of limitation when describing what types of art she gravitates toward.

"With this space here, larger works are better," she said. "With a smaller work, you have to really get on top of it, and if you've got people sitting at the table, then that artwork is not going to be admired because nobody wants to intrude on somebody who's sitting right there. ... In galleries you can get 2 feet from it."

Orme also said that she has to consider what will best fit in her space.

"If it's very graphic, that doesn't quite work in a coffee house scene because people are sitting, talking, relaxing," she said. "There's an ambiance going on that ... certain art can be disruptive to."

A place to be

Local artist Jami Ray enjoys showing her art from time to time in coffee shops—she has an upcoming show at Linnaea's. But she often opts to forge her own path.

Ray is the founder of Lamp Light Arts, a local art collective aiming to provide an alternate support system for local artists that bypasses the commissions and limitations that come with many art-hanging venues. Members of the collective get booked to live paint at events, turning their artistic process into a product.

click to enlarge PAINTER'S ALLEY Local artist Jami Ray and her collective, Lamp Light Arts, practice live painting at venues around town, including occasionally at SLO's Downtown Farmers' Market. Here Ray paints on Garden Street. - PHOTO COURTESY OF IVAN DITSCHEINER
  • Photo Courtesy Of Ivan Ditscheiner
  • PAINTER'S ALLEY Local artist Jami Ray and her collective, Lamp Light Arts, practice live painting at venues around town, including occasionally at SLO's Downtown Farmers' Market. Here Ray paints on Garden Street.

"Many of the artists in our community are not very pleased with the art organizations that are representing us, or the gallery process," Ray said. "We're kind of taking this into our own hands, and just showing up wherever we want in the county."

Ray said she believes there's a fine line between artists having a symbiotic relationship with their venue and artists getting taken advantage of.

"I feel like I am oftentimes adding more value to their guest experience by giving them art for their walls than I am getting back," Ray said. "This should be a different kind of partnership."

She said, however, that it depends on what the venue is doing for its artists.

"[If they're] having the Art After Dark reception, and putting out food, then I can see where taking a commission is appropriate. I think Marianne [Orme] does a lot for artists, and she definitely earns her commission," Ray said, referring to how Linnaea's treats its artists.

There's no doubt that coffee shops provide a unique set of benefits as artistic venues, namely an increase in accessibility for both the artist and the consumer. And as curator Ramos pointed out, because SLO has a relatively small art-purchasing demographic, and exorbitantly high property costs, coffee shops become the easy choice for many artists.

"The economics are such that there's been a decline in showing space," Ramos said of galleries and museums.

But the dominance of coffee shops as art venues in the community signals an underlying problem: "It doesn't create a great marketplace for the art itself," Downtown SLO CEO Swigger said. "I don't believe that many people, when they see art in a peripheral context, are compelled to think about that as something that they could have ownership over."

Furthermore, as Ramos said, artists may be forced to devalue their work in order to sell in a space where art is more decorative than a thing to be purchased.

As someone who makes a living through mostly self-represented efforts, Ray said she finds great support from organizations and individuals who give her the space to make her living the way she wants. This way, she isn't forced to devalue her art or give a large part of her profits away.

"The way I do feel supported is by the new CEO of Downtown SLO, Bettina Swigger," Ray said. "She lets us take over Garden Street on Farmers' Market night and roll out our whole crew. She is really supporting our goals, and she sees the value in it for the community and is not trying to make money off of us."

Swigger said that she is motivated to support artists like Ray because these efforts come back around to improving the economic vitality of SLO.

"One of the big projects in my life is trying to position arts and creativity as critical to the conversation around economic development," Swigger said.

For curators and artists alike, a main difficulty of being an artist in SLO is that nearby big cities can offer a larger market with more opportunities. As the curator at Studios on the Park, Ramos has witnessed this happen.

"The arts are a central part of our culture here, but if you're a full-time artist, it is a smaller market. There are limited venues," Ramos said. "So artists are compelled to go to the Bay Area, LA, and other markets."

click to enlarge NEW ACCESS POINTS Artist and member of Lamp Light Arts Joshua Talbott speaks with folks at the SLO Farmers' Market whose attention was grabbed by the live painters on Garden Street. - PHOTO COURTESY OF IVAN DITSCHEINER
  • Photo Courtesy Of Ivan Ditscheiner
  • NEW ACCESS POINTS Artist and member of Lamp Light Arts Joshua Talbott speaks with folks at the SLO Farmers' Market whose attention was grabbed by the live painters on Garden Street.

As an artist, Ray agreed that some of her peers find SLO limiting.

"They want to go bigger, they want more recognition, they want to be represented by bigger galleries, and they can't do that here," she said. "It depends on what kind of artist you want to be."

Despite the challenges that artists might encounter here, including the dominance of coffee shops as curatorial spaces, Ray said that SLO is overall an ideal place for her.

"I'm not interested in notoriety or selling a canvas for $100,000," she said. "I just want to have a simple life in a beautiful place. ... I think this is a perfect place for it." Δ

Arts Writer Malea Martin is at a coffee shop while she writes this. Reach her at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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