Hanging up at the hang-outs

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September 20, 2004 // UPDATED 4:06 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Brian Voerding
Brian Voerding

What's on the walls at your coffeehouse, and why it's there

Bountiful pastel-driven paintings hang in the upstairs seating area of the Dunn Bros Freight House Depot location, 201 3rd. Ave. S. There are still-life watercolors, pears in yellows and greens, peaches in reds. There are images of rural life, sprawling fields and towering churches. There are works by three artists on display and, curiously, their first names are all Mary. The employees aren't sure why, and neither is Dunn Bros' Art Director Diedrich Weiss.

"Strange coincidence," he said, laughing.

Weiss, who approves all art exhibits for the corporate stores, says coffee shop art is a vital way of connecting artists with business, giving increased exposure to both.

"We have a relationship with the community," Weiss said. "[Our stores] aren't just places to sell merchandise, but places for artists to express themselves."

Coffee shop art is abundant Downtown and is a symbiotic relationship between shop owner and artist. The two are so often known for one another, Dunn Bros recently decided to make local artists' work the crux of their newest advertising campaign. (See sidebar.)

The owner benefits from a revolving door of free wall decor. The artists benefit from public exposure and sales devoid of gallery markups and commissions (most coffee shops don't take a commission).

Curators, so to speak, choose what to display primarily on gut feelings. Weiss, who also selected the rough-hewn outlines of characters in two or three colors drawn by art school students at the 925 Nicollet Mall location, said he chooses art appropriate for all walks of life and ages, free of erotic or overtly political content.

"The art doesn't have to connect with everyone," he said, "but it can't exclude anyone."

According to Weiss, most Dunn Bros locations are booked eight months in advance with six-week shows. However, artists appear to clamor to be on the exposed brick walls of the Depot location, which is spoken for until spring 2006.

The family-owned Coffee Break is located in a square cinderblock building at 119 N. 1st St. Inside, a silver air conditioner murmurs in monotones, mounted high on the east wall, and potted plants in front picture windows curl toward the street. The shop is quiet for a Thursday afternoon.

Mark Sanyal, one of the family members who works behind the counter, took a minute to talk about the paintings on display -- vivid brushstroke abstractions in warm colors, jump off the yellow walls. They're the work of local artist Jeff Deitering. The works are modestly priced. The portrait-sized painting prices border $100; the larger ones start at $150.

Sanyal said the shop began displaying art quite incidentally one year ago.

"A woman came in one day with some work," he said. "It was good, so we told her to go ahead and hang it up."

Most people give the art at least a look, he said, and it improves the look of the shop. Artists will usually display work for a few months and then move on, but Sanyal said there aren't stringent timelines on who comes and who goes. There's no consistency in what's chosen, he said, and if his family agrees that the art is good, then it's in.

Espresso Royale, at 1229 Hennepin Ave. S., has hosted countless art exhibits since it opened in January 1992.

"[Artists] come in waves," owner Dan Zielske said. "Sometimes I turn people down. Right now, I wish I had people banging the door down."

Zielske said he chose to display art for two reasons: One, art adds to the decor of the shop and two, he's never liked businesses that advertise their own products.

"A beer sign in a bar has never done much for me," he said.

Zielske's never had to advertise for artists. Typically, he books space three to six months in advance. He says he favors black and white photographs, as illuminated by his current exhibit, and he likes to mix up the exhibits he displays, choosing bright colors in winter, but he tries not to impose too much on artists' work.

Katie Morris, one of three owners of the Sister Sludge Coffee Cafe at 330 2nd Ave. S., said art has become a common fixture at the shop, and she indicated that patience usually begets wall space.

"We ask the artists to show us a sample," she said. "Not everyone can connect the dots, but if the art is good, we let [the artist] hang it up for free."

Morris said the shop is currently booked four months in advance. Although in the past, she's lined up shows up to a year and a half out.

Beats a gallery

Wall aesthetics don't always translate into increased profits for coffee shops. Sanyal of Coffee Break says sales are up and down, but especially this time of year. But for artist Jeff Deitering, whose paintings are currently on the Sanyal's wall, business has never been better.

"I've sold eight paintings in two months," Deitering said. "It's fun. I get home from work, and there are phone messages from people who want to buy."

Deitering's shown his work at coffee shops and galleries since moving to the Twin Cities six years ago. The Coffee Break exhibit is his first foray into Downtown.

Deitering said coffee shops are great places to sell paintings. He's sold work for twice as much at galleries, he said, but sales aren't as brisk, and gallery owners often take percentages off the top.

"A lot of the paintings I've sold here," he said, "sat around in [a gallery at] Brainerd for months."

Deitering's recent financial boost may not be the norm. Sanyal said the first exhibit Coffee Break displayed couldn't manage a single sale in two months, and Zielske of Espresso Royale said that art sales can be hit or miss.

"Some artists sell half their shows," he said, "and others don't get a nibble."

Coffee shop art isn't always highbrow or for accomplished professionals, as most galleries are.

A regular customer of Espresso Royale collected years of spin art that he'd done at the State Fair, and Zielske let him display it, prompting more than a few startled observations from customers. Zielske said he always knows when an exhibit strikes the nerves of a few regulars, but he doesn't worry about lost business.

"We'll get customers who silently boycott certain shows," said Zielske. "We did a show a few years back with nudity in a few paintings, and certain customers suddenly stopped showing up." But when he changed the show, he said, the customers immediately returned.

Coffee Art

up for auction Sept. 23

Dunn Bros is taking the art-and-coffeehouse relationship to a new level, merging modern art with modern marketing.

The growing franchise sponsored a contest in August wherein the work of six local artists was chosen for a Dunn Bros ad campaign, featured in full-page ads in "the Rake" magazine.

Along with $250 in Dunn Bros gift certificates, winning artists received primarily exposure via the ads, a traveling art show and a gala benefit. The six winners, selected from 140 submissions, all depicted the artists' experiences with their favorite Dunn Bros location.

Dunn Bros will auction off originals of the winning art at a gala open to the public The Depot's Winter Garden reception room, at 225 3rd Ave. S., on Thursday, Sept. 23, 7:30-9 p.m. Proceeds from the event will benefit Art Buddies, the Twin Cities Fine Arts Organization and Carmen Pampa Fund causes.

The traveling art show continues until Dec. 30. It hits 13 Dunn Bros locations, including the Depot one at 201 3rd Ave. S., Oct. 15-21.