Art exhibitions at museums are often designed to attract large audiences; the practice justifies funding and brings in revenue for the institutions. Art in galleries, on the other hand, is mainly about sales that rightfully help gallery owners pay their bills and stay in business.
Since both enterprises depend on the reputation and marketability of the artists exhibited, young, emerging, or non-mainstream artists often find themselves in the perplexing situation of attempting to figure out how to get their work in front of people, develop a reputation, and even sell their art.
The solution calls on an artist to be creative in more ways than one, and today’s artists have a variety of non-traditional ways from which to choose. That includes exhibiting in cafes, restaurants, and other venues where the main menu is more than art.
Yet exhibitions in such venues may suggest to the general public that since the work is not in a more accepted or formal context, such as a museum or gallery, the work is lacking.
However, history has a few thoughts on the matter. Take for instance a group of artists in 1889 Paris. When the respected institutions of the day were uninterested in their art, the artists decided to create a show in the Cafe Volpini. That event is now recognized as the world’s first symbolist (or reaction against naturalism) exhibition. One of the planners of the financially unsuccessful event was Paul Gauguin, now a name associated with Western art.
Then — stepping out of the cafe for a moment — there’s the 2007 Joshua Bell experiment. That was when the world-class violinist performed for about an hour on a 1713 Stradivarius in a subway station, attracted the attention of only a few people, and made 32 bucks and some change. Just a few nights before, however, people were coughing up three times that amount to sit in a concert hall and hear this guest street musician perform.
The lesson is that a venue can inform perception for good or bad, and while quality art can be found in museums, galleries, and concert halls, it may also be closer than one thinks. “Showing their work in non-traditional spaces such as cafes, restaurants, and other commercial sites, such as office spaces, gives artists the opportunity to connect with the public in a different and unexpected way,” says Don Ehman, director of artists services for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
He adds that the artists are not the only ones who benefit. “Businesses understand that artists help to enrich the consumer experience and create a unique, distinctive environment that gives them an edge,” he says.
While cafes as galleries are nothing new, it may be a good time — when the economy still lumbers and exhibition venues seem more remote — to think about how these exhibitions happen and to find out if it is worth the effort for the artist or the business.
Small World Coffee
If anyone stopping into bustling Small World Coffee at its Witherspoon or Nassau street location takes more than a casual glance at the art that seems to call over the patrons chatting over the clusters of tables, it is not by accident.
“We have been exhibiting art once a month since the day we opened our doors in 1993,” says co-owner Jessica Durrie. “From our inception, having a monthly rotating art show with primarily local artists was a part of our mission. Between our two cafes, we now have 24 art shows a year.”
While there are several reasons why Small World hosts small local art exhibitions, Durrie says, “one of my favorites is that it allows our space to reinvent itself once a month. Most cafes have regular customers who come in multiple times a week. In this process of regular visitation we get used to the environment. But on the first Wednesday of every month after the new art show has been hung, I notice myself, my employees, and our customers look up a little more and take in the new art.”
Additionally, she says “having art shows is a great way to connect with a wider cross section of our community. There is a huge demand from artists to find exhibition space. We get far more inquiries each year than we are able to accept. Artists need venues to share their work. One of the great things about our cafes for the artists is that they get a lot of foot traffic and exposure. We are not a gallery though. We are a coffee house first that exhibits art. Through our art — and music — program at the cafes, we have met so many wonderful people that are a part of our extended community.”
To help the efforts Durrie says that two former employees — who are also artists — curate the shows, Jacqui Alexander and Suzanne Ives Cunningham.
The process involves submitting an application found on Small World’s website. It asks that the artist provide a description of the work, how the images can be reviewed (by checking the artist’s website or having images forwarded), and cautions the artists that displayed work be suitable for a family-friendly environment (no nudes!).
If accepted, the artist pays an exhibition fee: $75 for Nassau Street; $100 for the Witherspoon location. In turn, Small World helps the artist coordinate the sale of art work without a commission. The artist also has the opportunity to host an opening reception at the cafe.
Artists’ responsibilities include hanging and removing the art, with new shows usually installed on the first Tuesday of the month (that’s when the cafes close for staff meetings), but sometimes holidays or circumstances will change the night.
“As a co-curator and an artist, I think showing at Small World (or any other public venue) can really connect artists with the community that surrounds them,” says Princeton-based Jacqui Alexander. “I love to hear the crowds’ reactions to the new work that we exhibit each month, and I always pass that along to the artists. I think public exposure helps artists in several ways — aside from the chance to reach a new audience. It also affords artists an opportunity to solicit feedback on their work.”
Alexander, who has a degree in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design, continues: “In exhibiting my own paintings at Small World, I’ve been lucky to connect with some true art lovers, and to have the chance to discuss my work with those around me. Getting an outsider’s input, whether it’s a casual comment from a cafe visitor or a critique from a friend, is invaluable, and contributes to my development as an artist. It helps me gain perspective on what I’ve produced — to see things I hadn’t considered, to find out what’s ‘working,’ and to find new paths for the next pieces I take on.”
Alexander has also had some monetary feedback. “I’ve had great success selling work at my cafe shows. I try to find the ‘sweet spot’ — creating work that I’m pleased with and pricing in a way that makes it accessible to potential buyers.”
Art prices at Small World range anywhere from “not for sale” to $2,000, but the range that works best is from $100 to $600, says Alexander.
Artist and co-curator Suzanne Cunningham agrees about with Alexander about artists using cafes. “Cafe-galleries offer artists some of their first opportunities to show their work publicly. It is generally easier to get an art show at a cafe, while galleries usually require their artists to have a history of shows before they will consider hosting a person’s work. It’s that whole cycle of ‘can’t get a job without experience, can’t get experience without a job.’”
Cunningham adds that it is also generally more affordable to show at a cafe. Cafes generally have a deposit fee for a show or take a small commission from the artists, but standard art galleries may take a large commission or require a sizable membership fee, she says.
Believing that cafes are wonderful venues, Cunningham says, “it’s also great to show at a cafe because of the volume of people who see your work on a daily basis. I’ve had a dozen shows myself at Small World and have gotten much more exposure from being in a coffee show. A person has to make the choice to walk into a gallery to see art, while showing at a cafe means that people are going to see your work when they’re on their way to work, school, on a date, reading, and so on. It’s almost like mandatory viewing for the public, and free publicity for the artist.”
The two Small World locations have two art exhibitions currently in place. At its Nassau Street location, artist James McPhillips’ exhibition of 15 original oil paintings of Princeton scenes opened this past Friday. The impressionistic-style works remain on view through March 5.
The former graphic designer for McCarter Theater and Comedy Central says about the cafe-galleries, “I’m a huge fan of coffee shops and I’ve had previous shows at Small World’s Nassau Street location. They went really well. They have people designated to run the shows there, and they’re very professional in handling them. I sketched up the original Prince-TON shirt in Small World along with a ton of other ideas. They also have a clientele that will probably enjoy my work.”
McPhillips’ prices reflect SWC’s general range, $250 up to $2,000 at the current show.
But he has another price listing, too. In true entrepreneurial style, McPhillips’ Nassau Street show includes his Prince-TON shirt, Princeton greeting cards, Art Mini’s (bagged, tagged, hand-painted mini paintings of famous works throughout art history), Princeton calendars, and tote bags. In it a way, he replicates the current experience of attending a museum exhibition which extends in the gift shop. McPhillips prices his shop items from $20 to $90.
“I think being an entrepreneur is very important to being an artist. I’ve had as many entrepreneurial ideas as I’ve had art ideas. I think it may keep an artist inspired if it doesn’t overwhelm him or her. I think I might have an art show of landscapes but title the pieces according to what the sale will get me,” says McPhillips.
At the Witherspoon Street Small World Cafe, the fourth annual “Love” show — which features work by both Alexander and Cunningham — also opened last week.
“Every February we present a month-long community art show fundraiser called ‘The Love Show.’ Small World Coffee curators hold an open call for artwork and select 40 to 50 artists from the community to participate. Artists are asked to create a piece that reflects on their relationship with the word ‘love,’” says Durrie.
Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street and 254 Nassau Street, Princeton, 609-924-4377. For information on exhibiting go to www.smallworldcoffee.com/curate/index.php.
Another artist-friendly cafe in Princeton is Cafe 44, located at 44 Leigh Avenue, just off Witherspoon Street in the vicinity of the old hospital. In fact the hot coffee spot with quiet light, ample wall space, dark wood tables, and leather couches has an in-house artist collective that started exhibiting at the venue last September: Art+10.
Princeton-based photographer and Art+10 Tasha O’Neill member says the group “was introduced to Cafe 44 by one of the members’ daughters. It had opened recently and was open to the idea of having art on their walls. We had a group show in early September.”
O’Neill, who came from Germany to Princeton as an au pair 1973 and later married the space colonization advocate Gerard K. O’Neill, says that the media coverage for that show “put Cafe 44 on the map. Since then, one member after another has had a solo show until January 15. A friend of mine, painter Ifat Shatzky, will fill the walls until painter Mary Waltham and I take over on March 15.”
The shows at Cafe 44 usually last a month. There are no fees or commissions, but there is also no insurance. For Art+10 exhibitions, O’Neill says, “we have three judges from among the members who curate.”
Beyond her involvement with the Princeton Photography Club and Gallery 14 in Hopewell, O’Neill uses other cafes for additional exposure. “I have some work at Gelavino’s Gelateria at the Princeton Shopping Center. I just mentioned that if they ever wanted some art on the walls to contact me. I now have two mini-shows there, one by request — pictures of Italy.”
She also has work at Tortuga’s Mexican Village Restaurant, located across the street from Cafe 44 and owned by Cafe 44 owner Jennifer Jeffries. Additionally, O’Neill has been involved with Small World Coffee, which she says has the most professionally run cafe exhibition operation in town.
On the financial side of exhibiting on Leigh Avenue, O’Neill says, “All of the artists who have so far exhibited at Cafe 44 are well known and have a track record. Four artists have sold there in the $500 to $800 range. Some set the price minus the commission they would have to pay a gallery. One artist sold around 15 or more paintings at Small World to former coworkers who all wanted a piece by her. Artists sell best to people they know. Most people don’t go to a coffee shop to buy art. So, it’s quite iffy.”
Yet there is another consideration on pricing. O’Neill says that a few group members feel that an artist should not discount their works just because they are in a cafe. The idea is that if buyers purchased the artist’s work though a gallery and then saw a similar work at a lower price at Cafe 44 that the buyers may think that they paid too much, not understanding how galleries and artists actually work.
As for how many works will fit into Cafe 44, O’Neill says, “It’s all a matter of size.” Currently Princeton artist Ifat Shatzky, who uses mainly mixed-media on wood panels, is exhibiting five pieces, Her prices range from $500 for works that are two feet by two feet to $1,700 for those two feet by four feet.
Cafe 44, 44 Leigh Avenue, Princeton, 609-924-3900, www.cafe44princeton.com. Visit cafe for exhibition information.
At the Triumph Brewing Company at 138 Nassau Street in Princeton, where beer vats gleam behind walls of glass, sales and public relations manager Eric Nutt says that its local arts program started in 1995 and focuses solely on regional artists. “We strive to support thriving, local, talented neighbors whenever possible,” he says, adding that the company also features local musicians and songwriters.
The exhibitions in the entrance hall and the high-ceiling dining area run 8 to 10 weeks with the artist taking the same responsibilities and risks as in other venues. Though the brewery takes no commission or fee, it provides a reception with beer and appetizers and will put any prospective art buyer directly in touch with the artist.
Nutt says the application process involves sending an E-mail with information to firstname.lastname@example.org. Then the works are reviewed by Nutt, who has a bachelor’s degree in film and communication, his art history-trained wife, and other staff members.
In addition to artistry, there are a few basic considerations.
First, the brewery’s preference is for large, colorful pieces that will stand out from the brick walls and not need natural or directed light. However, Nutt says, they are not bound to that rule, and other works will be considered, including small watercolors and pen and ink drawings.
A second criterion is that the artist should have a body of work to fill the ample wall space and display cases. A good number is 60. An additional expectation is that the work be appropriate for a family or public venue.
The artist is responsible for hanging the work. However, the brewery has a history of providing some support with moving ladders and hanging. Artists are also responsible for preparing labels that give information about the work and prices.
“Most of our artists sell multiple pieces,” says Nutt. “Some sell five pieces, but we have had an artist who sold 20 pieces during the show.” He adds that if an artist sells during the exhibition period that the artist will either wait until the show is over or be willing to replace that work immediately.
Since Nutt says that the brewery has artists scheduled well into 2014, another criterion for an artist to exhibit there is to the ability to wait.
Laura Ancona, current Triumph Brewery exhibiting artist, appreciates the company’s open-wall policy. “The art world and market has become so over saturated that the galleries are becoming increasingly off-limits to artists, even those with great talent and ideas,” says Ancona, whose colorful and plentiful works will be on view through April 14. “I have had to come up with very non-traditional exhibition spaces myself. I have exhibited in a number of different types of venues, previously in both San Diego and San Francisco before coming to the Princeton area. Those venues included restaurants, cafes, expositions, art centers, and yoga studios.”
She says she chose the brewery because it is one of her favorite area places and that “there is an incredible amount of available wall space, which allows me to contribute a great deal of my work. More importantly, Triumph has become a cultural hub in the area as a result of being a friendly meeting spot for all types of people.”
Since Ancona hopes that people will appreciate her work, purchase it (with prices ranging from $200 to $2,000), and help her to create art as a way of life, she says, “I feel that risk is necessary in order to reach any sort of success. Perhaps the first time I exhibited my work I was a little bit intimidated, but it just feels natural to me now. What good would it be for me to create all this artwork and keep it locked in the basement?”
Triumph Brewing Co., 138 Nassau Street, Princeton, 609-924-7855, www.triumphbrewing.com/princeton. Send inquiry to email@example.com. Exhibitions are booked until early 2014.
It’s the first Friday opening of a new exhibiting artist at Trenton Social bar and restaurant on South Broad Street, across the street from the Sun Bank Arena and in the space that once housed the Urban Word Cafe. Artist Vanity Sabelnik, whose website calls her art “captivating glitz and sultry glamour,” greets patrons and table hops to answer questions about the show. The tall, 20-something woman with bare shoulders sporting flower tattoos is not the focus of tonight’s art (that’s city artist Karey Maurice and his 17 or so works that will be on display until Friday, March 1), but she’s the one who makes the exhibitions and first Friday openings happen.
Sabelnik says she got involved with the Trenton Social art exhibitions in 2010. “I learned through a mutual friend that Trenton Social was allowing artists to have shows. So I called up and spoke to T.C. (owner T.C. Nelson). He said, ‘How about bringing it over?’ So I did.”
Knowing a number of artists who wanted to exhibit their works and seeing that other artists were showing up at the restaurant and applying for shows, Sabelnik stepped in and took over the coordination for the space.
For artists to get involved, she says, they can come in and show their work any way possible, including electronically. There is no entry fee, but there will be a 10 percent commission for sold works. That goes to Sabelnik, who supports her own artwork and activities at Trenton Social through her a job at another restaurant. At Trenton Social, she not only arranges but assists with the hanging (as does Nelson), meets and greets visitors at the opening, connects artists and buyers, and monitors the show throughout the month.
Exhibitions are monthly, with art work going up and coming down at noon on that monthly first Friday. A reception follows that same night.
The number of works shown at the venue can vary from 12 to 40, depending on the size. Artists are generally free to show what they want, except for images that are too graphic or emphasize nudity. Sabelnik, however, admits that she pushed the boundaries when she exhibited busty, scantily clad females in her own show.
Prices for the art usually range from $100 to $500. Works sell depending on the artist and the network developed. “It is rare when an artist doesn’t sell anything,” she says, noting that there have been occasions.
As with most venues of this type, there is no contract or insurance, but Sabelnik says, even though she was concerned for her own show and presented the owner with a contract, “There’s never a problem. We secure the art on the wall. No one bangs into it or messes with it. No one ever touches it.”
She says that the venue is one of artists helping artists. Owner Nelson feels that they are also helping something else and says, “Any city that has come out of a post-industrial existence has recreated itself out of art and entertainment.”
Nelson talks about other cafes showing artists and points towards the heart of town, where there Cafe Ole is located. Although this popular cafe at 126 Warren Street has a history of exhibiting area artists, they are in the process of reviewing shows in the earth-toned area at the back of the shop, where workers and city visitors gather for breaks and lunch. The recommendation is for artists to stop in and see the manager, Kit Rivenburg, to discuss a project.
Trenton Social, 449 South Broad Street, Trenton, 609-989-7777, www.trentonsocial.com. Visit for exhibition information.
Cafe Ole, 126 Warren Street, Trenton, 609-396-2233, cafeolecoffee.com. Visit for exhibition information.
At Chambers Walk Cafe at 2667 Main Street in Lawrenceville, photographer Susan Alexander’s 22 colored landscape photographs appear as windows along the cafe’s brick walls. With a common price of $125, sale dots are on a few.
Owner Mario Mangone, in the midst of prepping for the day, says that some of the artists who participated in exhibitions in the former Main Street gallery started showing at the cafe years ago and that they continue working with the artist to create rotating exhibitions. In fact, Mangone says, they have a schedule that extends well into next year. “There’s no availability until 2015,” says the harried Mangone as he heads to the back to prepare the cafe’s offerings.
Meanwhile, in the midst of preparing paninis for the soon-to-arrive lunch crowd, Sarah Fall, a manager of Fedora restaurant at 2633 Main Street in Lawrenceville, says, “artists are welcome to bring in photos or a portfolio, and we check it out. We’re always looking for something new.”
As with all the exhibition venues, Fedora offers a partnership where artists accept the risks and hang the work. The difference here is that works can stay for an undefined period, depending on how the artists and proprietors feel. Works can also be sold right off the wall. Since Fedora has no fee and takes no commission, the proceeds go directly to the artist.
One of the Fedora artists is Lawrenceville’s Katie Hector, who is also taking classes at Mason Gross School for the Arts. The idea for her exhibition came from a friend employed at Fedora, and her follow up illustrates the simplicity of the process.
“I met with one of the owners and brought a portfolio of my work,” says the artist, who is in her early 20s. “Luckily for me, he was more interested in creating a platform for local artists to show their work than in making a profit from the use of the space. I wanted to go forward because my main intent was to get my work out there. Looking back, this may not have been the best idea. However, at the time I was more interested in the opportunity to have people see what I created.”
Hector says that in addition to participating in exhibitions with area arts organizations (another venue to gain experience and exposure), she had her first show in downtown Trenton at the former Gilmore’s Cafe. Of Fedora, where one of her self-portraits has been on display for several months, she says, “the managers at Fedora were incredibly accommodating and really let me use the space. They have also been wonderful about contacting me when interested patrons inquired. I sold a few pieces. Every show is an opportunity to meet people, artists, and make connections.”
While she says there’s almost no downside, she does mention one thing that all the cafe artists seem to share as they attempt to enhance reputation and art. “I feel bad because maybe I wasn’t as attentive to the work that was there as I probably should have been.”
Another Fedora artist is Sean Carney, who has a dozen landscapes displayed along the long hallway that leads to the parking lot. His works range in size from one feet by two feet to five by eight inches, in price from $10 to $60, and in medium from watercolor to colored pencil.
Carney, who is an art teacher at Lawrence High School and taught Hector, says that the idea for using the gallery came one day when he was leaving the cafe. “I noticed that the walls were empty and asked if they needed artwork, and they said ‘sure.’ Most of the artworks are sketches for larger paintings, and they are of places that I have been to and loved,” he says.
“We end up selling a lot of paintings over the year,” says Fall as fellow workers squeeze by and customers take a seat in the autumn-toned room with a large front window that offers a view of the Lawrenceville School’s lawns.
“We do it to support local artists. It enhances our space, and it lets people show off their artistic talent,” she says matter-of-factly as she moves the tray of sandwiches to the counter where the next hungry Gauguin may soon by showing up with a portfolio or, more likely, images on an iphone.
Chambers Walk Cafe, 2667 Main Street, Lawrenceville, 609-896-5995, www.chamberswalk.com. Exhibitions booked to 2015.
Fedora, 2633 Main Street, Lawrenceville, 609-895-0844, www.fedoracafe.webs.com. Visit location for more information.
The Gallery View
‘I think anywhere one can show their work is a good thing as long as the work is protected,” says Martha Press, the owner of the professional Farnsworth Gallery on Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown. Press has a long history of selling work by regional artists — she operated Gallery on Lafayette in Trenton before opening her current shop, and is known as a dedicated supporter of artists.
“What I have consistently experienced and heard from artists is that the cafe or restaurant owners are happy to have art on the walls. They don’t necessarily make any effort to promote the work, but occasionally something does sell,” says Press. She then adds that she also dabbled with non-gallery spaces to sell art. “In the early years I also took work to various outside venues, for example the Marriott Hotel in Trenton. Eventually I sold the hotel about $20,000 worth of art.”
Noting that some of her artists who show at her gallery also have a history of showing at cafes and selling work, she says, “Artists are beginning to understand that they need to be proactive promoters of their work. The Internet, websites, and Facebook have become wonderful tools to get additional attention,” she says.
Press says that artists “often come in and ask ‘How do you get started.’ When folks come in and want to be with the gallery but are not ready for ‘prime time’ I spend time with them. There is so much to learn.”
While cafes can help with that learning, “galleries lend credibility to artists,” says Press. They also spend years cultivating connections between artists and clients, provide ongoing support, and provide a space that attracts people searching for art. Gallery commissions, therefore, can range from approximately 35 to 50 percent of the listed price.
“Connecting a painting with a buyer is hard work even on a good day. The more educated buyer can come in and see a piece and assess its value quickly,” she says, noting one area where a gallery can help in a way that a cafe may not.
Farnsworth Gallery, 134 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown, Wednesdays and Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m.; Fridays, to 9 p.m.; Saturdays, to 6 p.m.; and Sundays, to 5 p.m., 609-291-1931, www.farnsworthartgallery.net.
Editor’s note: To share any other cafe and restaurant art venues, E-mail information, including dates of upcoming receptions, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
#b#Enter At Your Own Risk#/b#
While Gauguin and the other artists who participated at Cafe Volpini in 1889 seemed to have something more on their minds than art insurance, it’s a topic that today’s artists need to consider before jumping in and exhibiting at cafes and restaurants.
“When artists are displaying at Small World Coffee, they are showing the art at their own risk,” says co-owner Jessica Durrie, echoing the views of similar venues. “Small World Coffee provides the space, but we are not responsible for damage and so on. The good news is that in the last 19 years we have only had one experience of a small piece of art work disappearing. Pieces fall down from time to time and get a little damaged, but it is definitely not the norm or something that has caused an issue. The patrons are respectful of the work, and the artists generally do a good job of hanging their show so that it is secure.”
Exhibitor James McPhillips, right, offers a not uncommon artist’s view: “I’m willing to take the risk of hanging my work to get it out there, and I know they’ll do their best to protect it.” Gauguin — who took the ultimate risk and left Europe to live and paint in Tahiti — would understand.