Idaho Arts Quarterly » Newsworthy

Where it hangs

The implications of displaying art

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Sunlight peeks in the windows of a downtown coffee house, spilling onto tabletops and illuminating the walls, from which vibrant and colorful artwork silently creates a mood like subtle background music. Weaving in and out of patrons' peripheral vision, these paintings may only receive subconscious attention at times, yet they proudly await recognition in the natural spotlight of the sun.

This is a familiar scene in many businesses. Thanks to the fact that talented artists tend to outnumber galleries, artists have had to look for alternative places to display their work. Rather than sitting back and waiting for a gallery to come knocking, artists romance their audience, hanging their work wherever they can. Their creations flirt from the walls of favored latte stops, wink above the tables of downtown cafés and breathe color into the lamplight glow of otherwise drab waiting rooms.

Some artists love the varied audiences that non-traditional venues offer. Among them is Amber Grubb, whose acrylic paintings can be found in eateries throughout Boise and Meridian. She's not opposed to galleries, but finds that public spaces mean more exposure for her artwork.

"I just want to touch people with my art," says Grubb. "Public places offer a revolving door, and I like being able to have a larger, more diversified audience. It's all about having the opportunity to move people. If I make money, then great, but right now, that's not my focus."

Artists aren't the only ones who benefit from the collaboration. Businesses who choose to display local artwork gain repeat customers, expanded exposure and an enhanced environment for workers and customers. Many patrons appreciate the extra consideration paid to detail.

Raelyn Conte, a regular at the Library Coffeehouse in Meridian, says she regularly notices what is hanging on the walls. "My eye always goes to the art," she says. "If it's a good artist, I pay more attention. It makes me feel good and creates a nice atmosphere. I think it causes me to want to sit and stay awhile instead of getting up to leave."

It seems that the most common alternative venues for showcasing art are coffee shops. Flying M Coffeehouse in Boise has had a big influence on the Boise art community for more than 16 years. Its counterpart in Nampa, the Flying M Coffeegarage, recently started featuring art. Owners Lisa and Kevin Myers believe that by using local artists' work, they are showing that art can be approachable. Lisa Meyers also emphasizes her interest in backing beginners. "There is talent at so many levels," she says. "We offer a way to bridge the gap between the artists and the galleries that they aspire to be involved with. We are kind of like a stepping-stone. Here, artists learn how to hang their items and price them. Really, they are learning how to show their work."

Myers Anderson Architects in Pocatello features the work of a new local artist every month. Jane Warnock, interior design project manager for the firm, loves the feedback they receive from the community and states that, ultimately, the company benefits when new customers come to see the latest displays.

"We have seen many positive responses from clients," says Warnock. "Many local businesses that we work with, including the university and the school district, are very enthusiastic about coming to our offices to see various shows. We also show university and high school students' work at times, which helps their program development. It gives students an opportunity to show their work off campus."

Phil and LeAn Lee, owners of Hair and Face Designers in Moscow, are big supporters of their local arts community. From the neon sign that glows above the entrance of their shop to the folding-screen mural inside the salon, the artwork highlights the Lees' active involvement. "I have always liked the unique and uncommon," Phil Lee says of supporting local artists. "There were many things that I felt would make a great business, one of which was providing a stronger connection to the community through many different avenues. Local art in the salon by clients was one of those avenues."

There are, however, other aspects of displaying art to take into consideration, especially when it comes to selling it. Jacqueline Crist, owner of the recently closed J Crist Gallery in Boise, says that self-promoting artists can affect not only the galleries, but the art community as a whole. While she appreciates seeing art in local businesses, she says it's how the artwork is sold that can create difficulties.

"A lot of artists make it difficult for us when they undervalue their work," she says. "If a painting would typically sell for $500, but the artist says, 'I am not selling in a gallery so I'll charge $250 for it,' that's where it hurts us. They are training the buyer to expect more for less instead of training them to pay for art what it is worth. It's not helping anyone."

Crist feels underpriced artwork in local businesses can actually harm the art community rather than enhancing it. "This trend doesn't help in building a stronger, more vital community," she says. "Ultimately, most artists who are selling in coffee shops have a goal of ending up in a gallery; but by their actions, they are undermining the foundation of the very system that they want to be a part of and hope to enter. It sends bad messages all around."

While Crist sees the importance of training the buyer, some may wonder if the ultimate goal of most self-promoting artists is to end up in a gallery.

Nancy Liston, a Hailey-based artist whose ceramic platters and large paintings are displayed in businesses throught the Northwest, says it is not.

"It is hard work to sell a painting," she says. "If an artist is interested in selling their work, what other choice do they have but to self-promote? I paint because I'm good at it, and I promote it because I need to make a living. If I wait around for a gallery to pick me up or if I hire an agent, I have no control over my own reputation."

The stage of the artist's career can determine where they might be able to show their work. Meyers stresses that most of the artists featured at Flying M are just starting out.

"The curators work with the artists to come up with fair prices," she says. "We stay in business because we sell good coffee—we are not a gallery. The art plays a part in making our space vibrant and ever-changing. We help artists find confidence in showing their work to a 'casual' customer that happens upon their art, not seeking it out by going into a gallery."

Galleries and non-traditional art displays may act as separate entities, but they still rub shoulders at the same party. Whether the artwork is viewed in a refined gallery or on a busy café wall, it is still hung with the hope that it will stimulate the viewers' thoughts and awaken their own creativity.