"Galleries were not welcoming to my art." Well, we've all heard that before: Rejections cause some artists to give up, others to change their work to something they hope dealers might like better, yet others to search harder for galleries that will take them in. Sculptor Don Howard of Winter Park, Florida, decided to look for other places to show his work, masks with exotic faces, but art galleries were not among them. "A lot of places that show art aren't art galleries," he said, adding that he has sold many of his wall-hung sculptures to clients of bars, libraries, restaurants, a copy center and even a tattoo parlor. "There is a lot of waiting around in these places and, while they're waiting, people look at the walls around them. Sometimes, they stare seriously."
Like love and marriage, art and art galleries seem to go together, but sometimes it is not an easy pairing. Some artists may not have enough work to satisfy a gallery owner, and they may not be ready (yet? ever?) to view their art as a saleable commodity or even know if anyone is likely to want to buy it. Putting artwork up for display is essential for any artist's artistic and personal development, but venturing into commercial art galleries usually comes after a process of exhibiting pieces elsewhere. That elsewhere may consist of a wide variety of alternative spaces that may or may not have any relationship with art. "We used alternatives as a stepping stone, building a resume and gaining experience," said Kate Burridge, wife and business manager of Arroyo Grande, California painter Robert Burridge. "We did it at the beginning of his career, and it helped get him ready for galleries, where people now buy his work."
During that time, the late 1980s and early '90s, Burridge's work was exhibited at coffee shops and restaurants, hair salons, libraries and wineries. Sales were brisk, but usually on the low end, between $75 and $350 apiece, although once he did sell a $1,000 painting at a wine tasting. Perhaps, the lesson of all this is that artwork needs to go where people with money go; art galleries only attract a small fraction of those with disposable income, while everyone goes out to eat.
Restaurants and cafes are probably the largest sponsors of informal art shows in the United States. These exhibitions create, to Terry Keene, owner of The Artichoke Cafe in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a "win-win situation for us and for the artist. The artist gets to display work and make sales, and we get a free, ever-changing source of decor."
At times, the artwork becomes a very integral part of the overall dining experience. At Cafe Tu Tu Tango, which has six locations (Atlanta, City of Orange, Hollywood, Miami, Orlando and Toronto), the interiors are all designed to look like an artist's loft in Barcelona, Spain. Not only are there completed paintings and sculptures around the restaurant but also works in progress that artists are completing on the premises, working at easels or on a sculptor's table. "Metal sculptors sometimes use a spot welder," said the general manager of the Miami restaurant. "The heavy work is done elsewhere and brought in to be assembled."
The interior of the Big Sky Cafe in San Luis Obispo, California has an art gallery motif, staging six two-month shows annually. "We have music there, too," said one of the restaurant's managers. "It's everything that makes people happy -- music, food and art."
The arrangements that artists make with restaurateurs vary widely. At some restaurants, the manager selects the artist and the artwork; at others, the owner picks what will be shown. Keene does not charge any commission on sales at the restaurant -- some others do, ranging from 10 to 40 percent -- and the agreements between artist and café owner usually the business of any liability in the event of work being damaged or destroyed. The same is true for any stolen pieces, which is treated as a part of doing business in this manner.
Ad hoc art spaces may reveal other drawbacks for artists as well. Artworks may not be properly hung or labeled; a librarian, for instance, may not be able to answer a question about who the artist is, the cost of a work or how to get in contact. The tasting rooms at wineries, where artwork may be on display, are usually dimly lit, which may add ambience to the experience of sipping wine but make seeing the art more difficult. The heat generated by food at a restaurant or hair dryer at a salon may cause damage, as will smoke at a bar. Various smells also get picked up, which stay with the art and are difficult to remove. Protecting the artwork, when it is incidental to the main function of the establishment, is not likely to be a high priority to the owners, but artists may discover that the cost of obtaining their own insurance coverage for these works -- especially at a restaurant, where rates are set based on the likelihood of fires -- is prohibitive.
Putting up artwork in book store, cafe, pool hall or car wash ("We've tried everything once," Don Howard said) is the goal of no one's artistic career, but it may lead to more and better things. Art dealers may stop in for a meal, look around and ask an artist to show at their galleries; customers may want to buy what they see at the cafe or something else in the artist's studio or even commission the artist for a new piece. Intrepid artists bring their work to the places that wealthy people go, knowing that art collecting can start or take place anywhere.