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Saturday, Aug. 8, 1998

Art A La Carte

Restaurant art exhibits help local talent and please customers

Staff Writer

   A few years ago, artist and Core Gallery Director Doug Stenner couldn't imagine his work being shown anywhere near pepperoni.
   ``I used to be a real purist and only show in galleries,'' he said. ``The older I got, it became important for me just to get it out there.''
   And he is. Along with other artists from the K Space arts collective, he regularly shows works at Dentoni's Pizza, 415 William St.
   ``I don't know if it's a market, but it is a chance for exposure,'' he said.
   Restaurants are a good place for it. According to the National Restaurant Association, 46 percent of adults ate out daily in 1996, the last year for which figures are available.
   Although it's hard to quantify, local artists and restaurant mavens say more area eateries have given contemporary artwork prominent play in the last few years. It's a win/win deal, they say: Changing exhibits give diners a reason to come back and order an entree or two, and the artists' work is seen by some people who might never set foot in a more formal exhibition space.
   ``It's almost as if we're force-feeding them, in a way,'' Stenner said.
   Cheri Crecelius, a regular at the art-packed Crazy Ladies downtown, says she doesn't feel like the work shown there is being shoved down her throat.
   ``It's exciting to know there are places that artists can come and show their work,'' she said.
   Seeing artwork in a restaurant, where the audience is seated and relaxed, has some advantages over seeing it in a gallery, some say.
   ``There's something nice about being able to sit down to a meal and have something to look at. It's a relaxing, interesting way to look at art (rather) than having to stand on a hard floor in a museum,'' said Jim Edwards, art lecturer at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. ``It's very good for the art community because it gives artists a chance to show their work in a different venue.''
   Some restaurant owners take their cues on how to treat the work from galleries. At Marbella, 1002 Chaparral St., track lighting is trained on the paintings and murals to draw attention to them. And Marbella and Crazy Ladies Juice Bar and Coffee House, 402 Peoples St., have had receptions for the artists who show there.
   Most major cities have restaurants that are as well-known for the artwork displayed inside as they are for the food served there, said Bob Lynch, president and chief executive officer of Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C.
   It's a longstanding union.
   ``You can go back and look during the time of the Impressionists (1860-1930) and hear about many examples of how the artists would sometimes use venues like that, or relationships with restaurants, to get art out that wasn't being embraced quickly by the formal establishment. You see it today in SoHo in New York,'' Lynch said. ``If handled properly and displayed properly, it's a great opportunity, and great artists in the early phases of their career have used that opportunity.''
   In big cities, it's prestigious for an artist to show his or her work in certain restaurants, Edwards said. El Palomar restaurant in Houston had regular art receptions and shows for about five years, drawing some big names from the arts community.
   ``It got to be an underground, cult thing, and some artists said they would rather have a show at the El Palomar than at the Fine Arts Museum,'' he said.
   El Palomar became so well-known as an artists hang-out that even out-of-town visitors learned to drop by if they wanted to find out what was going on in the arts scene in Houston, he said.
   Crazy Ladies has become a local artists' hangout. Actors rehearse on the second level and visual artists have added their own touches to the ever-growing collage on the black bars of the loft railing.
   The juice bar has had monthlong exhibitions of local artists' work since it opened four months ago. Receptions have been held at the artists' request.
   ``We cater to the artists as much as we can,'' co-owner Jennifer Tolin said.
   Artist Dan Florcyk appreciates that approach. His exhibit ``Me and Narcissus'' opened July 30.
   ``I had total say on how it hung, when it comes down, if I want to sell (the work) or not -- all the logistical things that a gallery director would control otherwise. If I want something hung backwards or upside down or in the dark, I can do that.
   ``I walked in there Monday morning (before the opening); Jennifer was in there, and she put on some Bob Marley, made me some coffee, and I hung the work. I didn't have to worry about it being hung wrong,'' Florcyk said.
   Tolin and co-owner Milena Worsham put few restrictions on the artists in terms of what they can show. Nudity is OK, though they won't show anything they deem pornographic. A recent show that included several nudes didn't draw any negative responses, Tolin said.
   ``And angry pictures are OK; they're part of expressing oneself,'' she said.
   Christian Chavanne, owner of Marbella, prefers to hang lively, brightly painted works in his upscale restaurant. He will show nudes, but they are hung on the second floor, where children are less likely to see them.
   Having artwork around adds to the dining experience, he said, adding, ``I want all of the senses to be stimulated.''
   Several works have been sold to Marbella diners. Information on how potential buyers can contact the artists is available at the hostess stand. That's the extent of Chavanne's involvement in the sales -- he doesn't take a commission.
   ``I'm not a broker; I'm not an art agent. In my restaurant, I like pretty stuff on the walls,'' he said.
   Some restaurants have arrangements with galleries rather than with the artists themselves. The artwork that hangs in Small Planet Deli, 42 Lamar Park Center, comes from Wilhelmi/Holland Gallery. Small signs posted in the entryway let diners know how to reach the gallery if they're interested in the work.
   ``Initially, I approached the Wilhelmi/Holland Gallery just as a way to aesthetically enhance our space without having to spend a tremendous amount of money,'' said deli owner Pam Johnson. ``It enhances the space as well as benefiting some local artists. What's great is that it changes, and each time that we get a new show in, the appearance of the deli seems to change entirely. It does bring in a few new customers; all of the sudden, the friends and family of the new artist come in, and inevitably, some of them haven't been here before.''
   Photographer and painter Barbra Riley has shown her work at Small Planet, and some of her photography hangs in Jason's Delis here and in McAllen.
   She likes having her work in restaurants, she said, because of the amount of time people spend in them. Folks who might bolt through a gallery in 10 minutes might be more likely to spend some time with a painting, photograph or sculpture while they wait for and eat their food.
   ``On the average gallery visit, a person walks in and walks out,'' she said. ``In a restaurant, people sit there and kind of live with the art for a while.''

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