The Gallery in the Café, the Stage in the Coffeehouse


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[M]aybe it’s the hum of tampers and milk pitchers rhythmically clanging behind the bar, or the soft, steady beat of alternative music in the background—whatever the intrigue, coffeehouses have long been a draw for creative customers. Some café owners have turned this relationship into a mutually beneficial partnership by offering their space to artists to share their work with the community. Whether offering wall space as a gallery, the floor space as a stage, or simply supporting the local arts community, these partnerships benefit the artist by giving them an opportunity to promote their work, drawing in new customers for the coffee shop.

Many coffeehouses, especially those situated in a thriving business or cultural district, are already poised to form partnerships. In Annville, Pennsylvania, the close proximity of MJ’s Coffeehouse to the Lebanon Valley College campus has made it a natural extension of the school—MJ’s is just across the street from campus. Owner Skip Hicks is a longtime supporter of the college and local arts community and says MJ’s is a destination for artists looking to reach new audiences, including musicians, painters, and photographers. “They all generally come to us as referrals from other artists. It creates a domino effect so we really don’t have to go out and search for anyone,” he says.

MJ’s is adjacent to the Allen Theatre, a cinema that shows an eclectic mix of first-run and classic films. Patrons of the theater who are coming into MJ’s to purchase refreshments can clearly see the art on display. Hicks explains that the coffeehouse is independent of the theater in that it has its own programming, but the two venues work together at times, as well.

Whether offering wall space as a gallery, the floor space as a stage, or simply supporting the local arts community, these partnerships benefit the artist by giving them an opportunity to promote their work, drawing in new customers for the coffee shop.

In addition to the visual art, which the artists personally come in and hang on homasote boards, MJ’s has a packed calendar of musical performances, including a weekly jazz series, and a Coffeehouse Series—featuring a singer and guitarist—hosted four to five times per semester in partnership with the college. They’ve also hosted an open mic night on Mondays for the past twenty years. Most of the musicians are affiliated with the college, while visual artists are typically from the community. “I actually wish we could work more closely with the college to display more student work,” Hicks says. “We’ve done it a few times but not enough—there’s quite a bit of talent on campus.”

As for compensation, Hicks says he doesn’t ask for a percentage of any visual works sold. “Our place creates an interesting environment and hopefully the artist will become better known.” Hicks says they purposely set out to create a space that was relatable and that could serve to highlight arts in the community. “The reputation spread—artists found out that they could display their work or showcase their talent at our venue. That was one of our goals from the beginning,” he says.

Live performances drive community connection at Donkey Coffee in Athens, Ohio. (Photo: Nicole Shanks.)

Connecting Through Film

Just over seventy miles east, Deja Brew has found its niche as an art café in the college town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Popular with students from neighboring Lehigh University, Deja Brew developed its connection to the local art community through owner Jeff Vaclavik. Vaclavik has a strong business presence in the artistically and culturally diverse neighborhood of South Bethlehem and is known for his affiliation with the SouthSide Film Festival. (The project launched from a partnership between a Deja Brew regular looking for venues to show his independent films and a local business group—of which Vaclavik was a member—looking for new initiatives to support.)

“It’s a different kind of art,” Vaclavik says of the films. “We’ve had thirteen festivals so far and have showed films from all over the world.” Vaclavik says that while Deja Brew displays some work by one of their employees, they’re best known for their connection to the film festival. He says their goal is to not only promote the filmmakers but to bring more people to the South Side. The festival launched the Flash Your Pass program, distributing lanyard passes to any filmmaker attending the festival for discounts at local businesses and access to all of the films and parties.

As the headquarters for the film festival, Deja Brew gets a lot of traffic by default. “You get some business out of it from people coming in to buy tickets. We make our space available and we have a reputation as a business that supports the arts. I think that as a coffeehouse, you’re kind of expected to be a little bit funky, a little bit artistic,” he says. “People see that and appreciate it—they’ll stop in to ask what films are coming up. It definitely gets people in the door, and by the same token, we want people to visit the other businesses.”

Music-based art makes the perfect backdrop for this reading nook at Donkey Coffee. (Photo: Nicole Shanks.)

Shoe Inspiration

For café owners, the desire to support and engage the local community often means finding creative ways to attract different segments of their customer base. When Ian Williams opened Deadstock Coffee in Portland, Oregon, in May of 2015, one of his goals was to partner with the corporate sector in some way. Portland is home to a slew of global footwear giants, and Williams wanted to establish a unique working relationship with his big business colleagues at the footwear companies.

“What I wanted to create was a place for everyone who works in the footwear industry to meet and chill,” Williams says. “Portland has a whole lot of coffee going on, and I didn’t feel comfortable hanging out in any of the coffee places.” Williams wanted a place that wasn’t too uptight, hipster, or intimidating. “My hope was to attract creatives but show that you can be creative in any kind of way. Our ‘guest book’ is a book of sneaker templates that people can draw in. We approach the design thing differently—we like to say that anybody can be an artist.”

At Deadstock Coffee in Portland, Oregon, customers can leave their unique mark in a book of shoe designs. (Photo: Cynthia Meadors.)

Sneaker displays fill the walls of Deadstock, and Williams hopes to attract the participation of more companies as the shop grows. “We had a customer who had a bunch of vintage Michael Jordan posters from the 80s and 90s which we mounted on foam board, then we displayed the actual Jordan sneakers that were shown in the posters,” he says.

Williams will launch monthly themed exhibits this fall, which started by approaching footwear company employees who nurture creative side projects outside of their corporate jobs. “Working with the companies is authenticating what we do,” he says. “We pride ourselves on people knowing Portland as the shoe capital, and we try to have genuine stories about the items we display.”

A Commitment to the Creative

While some cafés have taken initiative to serve as a hub for creativity in the community, other shop owners welcome artists making the initial connection. Kevin Oaks owns SoulFood Coffee House with his wife, Makia, in Redmond, Washington, where their gallery and performance space is booked through February 2017. The café has a few walls dedicated to local artwork; two to four artists rotate through each month, putting their work on display for a two-week period.

Oaks says he and his wife are as committed to the creative side of the business as the coffee itself. “In order to bring in the artsy crowd, you have to understand that it’s a labor of love,” he says.
“We’re both performers, and you have to understand that it’s a commitment—if you want to do it right, you want to provide a good space for the artist to play in.”

SoulFood has links on their webpage for artists and musicians to contact them directly, send clips of their work, and download an artist agreement. The café takes a 20 percent commission for any artwork sold. A piece will be marked once it’s purchased, then left on display for the duration of the show. “We pay a small stipend for the musicians,” he says. “Most of our shows are donation-suggested, not closed door, so they’re open to the public. We’re one of the only places around for live music, so we’re really known for that.” Bringing in local artists can also showcase the rich culture of a community.

A prototype of a pencil-inspired shoe sits on display at Deadstock. The prototype was created at a shoe design school located a few blocks from the coffee shop. (Photo: Cynthia Meadors.)

Working with diverse demographics has been a major driver for Donkey Coffee in Athens, Ohio, says Troy Gregorino, the shop’s booking manager. “Donkey is one of the most heavily traveled places in the city of Athens, so artists’ work actually gets a lot more visibility here than it would in a gallery,” he says. “It benefits the shop because it makes the walls look awesome and shows different aspects of the community, which is what Donkey is all about.”

Gregorino says they recently hosted a collaborative show by an organization that runs a visual arts program for adults with various developmental disabilities. “It was a very different show—a lot of color, a lot of whimsy,” he says. “It benefits the shop because it brought a lot of folks in. Some of our best shows have come from community-based organizational efforts. I like the fact that we have a really wide range of artists—total novices to seasoned professionals.” Donkey Coffee works on a commission model similar to SoulFood, where the shop keeps 20 percent of proceeds from sold work.

The coffeehouse and artist relationship holds rich rewards for both parties. Gregorino sees the benefits extending into the community as well. “Arts and culture are our lifeblood. It invites community participation, engenders the idea of connectedness rather than a more sterile business approach, and it brings life to the place. It’s a very symbiotic relationship—we rely on each other in a lot of ways.”

The coffee house could be called the place where art and commerce intersect, which means good business for everyone.

Sara Hodon is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.

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