Want some art with your coffee?


One day you may find yourself sipping your triple low-fat half-caf espresso with a shot of hazelnut and dollop of whipped cream. You’ll be typing away at your laptop and you’ll look up and there on the wall will be a painting that will catch your eye. You’ll stand up, appreciating the gem that was there all along, but that you never noticed before, and you’ll decide it would go perfectly in your living room. So you’ll inquire of the barista, after you bus your dishes, and you’ll arrange to purchase the painting.

That, at least, is the hope of a Twin Cities artists who display their work at Dunn Brothers, Acadia, Java J’s, Spyhouse, Artists’ Grind, A Fine Grind, and White House, and other local coffeehouses. But does this happen?

Michael McGraw is a photographer who has shown at Dunn Brothers, Java J’s, and Corner Coffee. I interviewed him over the telephone about his experiences.

“People aren’t there to buy art,” McGraw told me. He says he doesn’t count on sales, but rather uses the coffee shops shows for exposure and to get people on his mailing list. McGraw says he makes more money by bringing in display prints of his work that he can sell at a cheaper price.

When McGraw shows art at Java J’s, he’ll invite everyone on his mailing list to an opening, which brings in a lot of people. Java J’s also designs a postcard with his artwork, which patrons can use to get a dollar off their coffee purchases during the month of his showing.

McGraw schedules his showings by inquiring at coffee shops where he sees art on the walls. He’ll ask the barista for information. Sometimes, coffee shops will have a curator, although just as often the artist speaks directly to the owner or manager. “When they have a curator, there’s a better quality of art,” McGraw says.

Melody Libson curates Dunn Brothers galleries at 34th and Hennepin, Bryant, and Lake Street in Uptown. She got her start initially by showing her own work.

“It used to be that the managers would do [curating] themselves,” she says in a phone interview. Libson does her curating for free, because the stores do not make commission.

On whether artists actually ever are able to sell their work, Libson explains: “It’s hit or miss. When you go to a gallery, you only look at a piece for a few minutes.. In coffee shops you the same person coming in and sitting for a half an hour, sometimes every day.”

Artists report mixed experience showing work at coffee shops.

“I got an overwhelming response, a ton of emails, from showing in Spyhouse,” writes Caitlin Karolczak, a painter, in an email I interview. Karolczak has shown work at Spyhouse and Acadia. She explains that most of the art displayed in coffee shops tends to be graphic or illustrative work. “They don’t realize it takes me months to finish one painting, which results in a higher price range.”

Karolczak notes that when a person shows work at a gallery, the work is marked up 50 percent. In a coffee shop, an artist can offer much lower prices. The downside is that the artist herself negotiates the price, so potential buyers sometimes attempt to haggle prices down.

“Fortunately for me,” says Karolczak, “I sell paintings on a regular basis and I don’t need to haggle!”

Prestige also becomes an issue when an artist is deciding where to display their work. “I’ve turned down several cafes and coffee shops based on the quality of work they generally show, the quality of their establishment, and the behavior of their clientele,” Karolczak says. ” An artist should always visit a place before agreeing to show there.”

Some artists choose not to show their work at coffee shops at all. In an email interview, mixed media artist Kris Brown tells me, “I imagined my art in lights over the utensil station and I caved.”

Brown says she feels bad for bailing on Sister Sludge and has this insight on the whole process: “I like to imagine my art is the drug—so who wants the backseat to caffeine, cheapest damn jive of all … but then I think, someone might sit long enough to look up from their laptop and notice my art—and if they down enough caffeine they might even get excited about my art—which is almost like hoping a lush will buy my lapdance at a seedy bar. It’s kind of that bad, or that good. It’s down and dirty–that’s the stigma of coffee shops.”

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.