Want fries with that?
Restaurants and retail shops get serious about the art business
The olive-green walls of Silo Restaurant's bar might not strike the casual observer as prime gallery space. Slightly recessed, lit like booths at an upscale Italian hole-in-the-wall, it takes some imagination to think you could successfully move paintings off these surfaces and into the hands of collectors. Or it takes an artist.
"I had always sold my art out of here," says Terri Wright, special events coordinator for Silo, "so I knew [other artists' work] would sell." Wright, whose abstract, geometrical paintings adorn several nooks and crannies of the building, threw her first art show last July, during Contemporary Art Month. In January, a group show featuring sculptor Danville Chadbourne, painters Mark Hogensen and Yuri Martinez, and photographer Ron Binks, sold 75 percent of the displayed work, an impressive percentage, says Wright.
"I had a guy in tango-ing with his wife," Wright recalls. "She loved one of the paintings and he bought it for her birthday." Another regular client, a designer, purchased four paintings for a new townhouse he is building.
"You get a lot of different people in to see your work," says Hogensen, an instructor at Palo Alto College who had never shown in a restaurant setting before. "I like the idea of the prestige of a gallery, but I also like the idea of a more populist venue," he adds, identifying a stigma that is often attached to artwork shown in restaurants.
Restaurants, bars, and similar venues seldom have curators with formal art backgrounds, and if they choose to show artwork, it is often selected based on personal preference or acquaintance with the artist. And, for the most part, artists who already have successful careers do not exhibit at local eateries.
Arturo Almeida, art consultant to University of Texas at San Antonio President Ricardo Romo and an artist himself, says, "I respect artists who say, 'I won't show at restaurants,'" especially when they have a business relationship with a gallery. But, he notes, galleries can be hard to get in to, and, "Especially in the beginning [of an artist's career], it's good exposure."
Wright says offering that opportunity to artists motivates her. "I look at everybody's work that comes in," she says. "Everybody. If I like the art and it fits the space, it goes in."
Wright's approach to curating the space is a fortuitous amalgamation of personal association and art world credentials. Chadbourne, with whom Wright has developed an ongoing working relationship - he is the featured solo artist for April, May, and June - is a successful fine artist who has not had a solo show in a San Antonio gallery in some time. Hogensen, an accomplished painter whose work Wright saw at the Center for Spirituality and the Arts (which in turn is directed by Chadbourne's long-time partner Diana Roberts), says he wasn't actively pursuing an exhibition at the time he was asked to participate in Silo's show.
The desire to open doors for struggling artists inspired designer Lara August, who owns ROBOT Art Gallery on South Alamo. "I feel for the artists because I am an artist," says August, who has taken the concept of "remote location" shows to a new level, placing work at O'Krent's Abbey Flooring Center on North Loop 1604, Luxor Jewelers at the Colonnade, and Twin Sisters Bakery and Café downtown. "First Friday has kind of gone down the tubes," she says ruefully. "We don't get a lot of quality foot traffic, so I had to put on my marketing hat."
ROBOT can address the target market that suits a particular artist's style, she believes, seeking out high-end customers and interior designers where they live and work. And while she allows that she has to select more commercially appealing work for Luxor and O'Krent ("No nudes," says proprietor Sam O'Krent, "but outside of that, it's pretty much fair game"), August says, "Artists love it ... they want to make a living." And other venues, such as Twin Sisters, are "more liberal. They were like, 'Bring in the high school kid!'" she recounts, referring to a student who is having his first show at Twin Sisters this month.
When she first began her remote location shows last fall, a well-meaning artist told her, "'Laura, the art world goes in two directions: fine art and commercial. You're gonna have to pick one.'" But, August says, "I'm challenging that all the way."
While several local restaurants, from Cappy's to Salsa Mora's to Azúca, feature original art on their walls, ROBOT's efforts highlight how the non-gallery scene is changing locally. August signs contracts with the artists she shows, and with a background in fine as well as commercial art, she has the cred of many local curators. Wright is careful to note that she sees Silo's role as complementary to galleries, pointing out that she doesn't promote artists outside of her venue. But Silo, like other restaurants, is beginning to mail professional show cards and throw full-on openings. August is also planning to begin holding openings at each of her remote locations starting with this month's shows.
Even more appealing for working artists, August and Wright take a smaller-than-usual percentage from the sale of artworks - a benefit made possible because much of the overhead cost, from rent to wine for openings, is covered by the associated business. Because of Silo's restaurant connections, says Wright, "We can provide great wine, we can provide great food, live music, and make it a really fun event. It makes it into a celebration of all the arts." Plus, says Wright, "The artists are doing us as much a favor as we're doing them." O'Krent agrees: "Our customers love it. They ask, 'When are you getting more?'" - although so far the enthusiasm has not resulted in sales. But, "We're relatively new at it," he says optimistically, and they're looking forward to getting their second set of artworks this month.
Restaurants know that artists earn a following, observes Almeida, who showed local talent such as Vincent Valdez and Alex Rubio when he owned Café Latino off South Main. "Picasso and them used to always show in restaurants," he observes, adding that he keeps an eye peeled when he's out to eat: "You never know. You might find that special artist." In fact, Almeida found a painting of Hogensen's at Silo so appealing that he purchased the large work for the University's collection.
Ultimately it may be the market that drives the success or failure of these quasi-galleries, on both the supply and demand side. "I was pleasantly surprised," Hogensen says of his Silo experience. "They get a lot more traffic than some galleries."
"Some [artists] get so discouraged," concludes Wright, "because there's not enough places to show art. If they can't show, they stop producing." •