History has it that food and art have gone together as long as meat and potatoes. “Starving artists” were born out of the bohemian counterculture in 19th century Paris when undiscovered artists traded work for food. And artists, such as Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, were regulars at the La Colombe d’Or, a small café along the French Rivera, where they contributed original works for a meal. Those masterpieces are still there, alongside work by today’s artists.
Transforming dining room walls into gallery space is a global trend restaurateurs are utilizing even more today, including Utah’s own trendy cafés and historic establishments. Now, though, the state’s eateries hang art not only to support artists, but as a way to draw customers and establish their social brand.
Mixing Business with Pleasure
“Hundreds will see this work in a day,” says Lamb’s Grill and Café owner, John Speros. “[As an artist] you’re lucky to have that over a couple of months in a gallery.”
Lamb’s is a popular stop for the ballet crowd, who often frequent the classic, 90-year-old restaurant before performances at Capitol Theater less than a block away. Speros says his restaurant draws people who appreciate art, and some artists have been able to sell 30 pieces in a month. Word-of-mouth has spread about the opportunity at Lamb’s and now the restaurant is booked with different artists, mainly photographers, through 2010.
“I’m a photography buff and have lots of friends with photos lying around in boxes and several years ago I told them, ‘hey, come hang your work in my restaurant,’” recalls Speros. “Eventually, it evolved into featuring oils and watercolors, too.”
When a piece sells in Speros’ restaurant, he takes 25 percent from the selling price. But, he says, he profits more from the customer’s responses to the art.
“I will sit up here and watch them stop and actually study the work,” Speros says from his small, open office above the café. “It adds an extra dimension to their dining experience.”
It also adds dimension to unknown artists’ careers. “It’s the way you get seen,” says fine art photographer Mendel Peterson, Jr., Lamb’s November—featured artist, explaining that it’s difficult to break into Utah’s mainstream art community. “Exhibitions such as the Park City Arts Festival—you have to apply to show at those. The artists are selected and it’s very limited.”
Art as Social Consciousness
Providing people with an elevated dining experience is what drives the cultural traditions at Salt Lake’s Tin Angel Café, says owner Robin Fairchild. Featuring new art every month is as integral to the eatery as is routinely featuring new menu selections.
“We are local food, art and music; even though we are first a restaurant, we like to be in the art community and support the people that are in it,” Fairchild says, explaining that showcasing local art and music goes with the restaurant’s mission to support local farmers. At Tin Angel, the artwork displayed is purely a social mission—the restaurant does not take any percentage of proceeds when the art sells.
“We help [artists] because they have a place to display their wares and they help us because we have fabulous paintings on our wall every month,” says Fairchild, responding passionately, though, to what it means to the café’s diners.
“It helps open up communication and helps them explore what they feel, how things make them feel and what that means to them.”
Being the Change
Off the beaten path in a Salt Lake downtown neighborhood, the Oasis Cafe also serves up monthly art along with healthy dishes especially popular with the restaurant’s vegan and vegetarian clientele. Having many social missions, such as using restaurant proceeds to benefit impoverished children in Africa, Joel LaSalle, managing partner of the Oasis, says it’s a natural fit to support artists.
“The demographic we have at the Oasis Cafe doesn’t have anything to do with age, money, education; we have a ton of business lunches here, but we also have students from the University of Utah,” he explains. “There’s not a specific niche group, but the one thing they have in common is a mindset. I think they have a way of expressing themselves that if they don’t express themselves artistically, they appreciate art. And we display art because not enough [restaurants] do it.”
The monthly rotation at the Oasis Cafe includes art from regular patrons, and while the cafe does take a small percentage from sales, Sue Stringham, Oasis Cafe office manager, says it mostly goes back into supporting the artist’s shows.
“We host an open house for them in which we supply the food, and they can invite their friends. And usually, our displays are part of the gallery stroll once a month. We advertise these events and include them in our newsletter.”
All the art is usually displayed on the east side of the restaurant where proper lighting is installed and there’s ample room for patrons to browse.
In November, diners sat at tables under the works of Catherine Ann Nelson, an artist who finds inspiration in nature. On the wall near the restrooms, Nelson’s work “Change the World,” a 24-inch by 30-inch textured media on canvas, was placed somewhat inconspicuously, yet stood out in a display that was primarily trees. The painting is simply Gandhi’s quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” That one might be an Oasis Cafe keeper.