“Righto, Dear—Off to the gallery then! We might as well have the maid toss this caviar because the stuff doesn’t keep. Could you fetch my beret and monocle?”
Okay, so preparations for a gallery visit in Charm City are nothing like the above. In fact, getting ready for an afternoon of art shopping these days is no different from getting ready for a night out at the bar—find a pair of jeans newer than five years old, make sure the cowlicks don’t have free reign, and go.
Sometines, going art shopping is going to the bar. Taverns great and small, upscale and divey, trendy and stolid are adorning their walls with for-sale art.
“Pretty much, if you’re not doing it, then you’re a corner bar,” says Kini Collins, who coordinates the monthly art hangings at Highlandtown’s Laughing Pint, at Pratt and Conkling streets.
She notes that the practice benefits both the bar owner and the artist.
“The bars benefit from people coming in,” Collins says. “The art creates conversations among people, and it’s interesting, visually, for the people who work there.”
For the artists themselves, there’s obvious exposure.
“The bar scene is a really useful and fun way for artists to get their work out,” Collins says, adding that there’s no real risk of being panned.
“Nobody’s reviewing these shows. It’s not like your reputation is on the line in a broad and public way.”
And it can be relatively lucrative.
“It’s one of the few places where an artist can charge full retail and get full retail,” she adds, noting that neither she nor the Laughing Pint take a commission on sold artwork.
Last month, Collins said, painter George Murrill sold seven pieces from the Laughing Pint.
Ron Russell, who coordinates monthly hangings for Roman’s Place, 11 S. Decker Ave., says, “I have friends who have brought stuff here and sold out.”
It should be noted that not all bar art arrangements are free. In some cases, the intermediary that arranges for an artists’ work to hang in a bar is a for-profit entity, and presumably takes payment in some form from the artist.
Russell, however, says that he can’t name any bars operating through such an arrangement offhand.
Mostly, it’s a symbiotic partnership that’s been around for ages, possibly starting with the French Impressionists, known for hanging their works in bars and restaurants.
Russell himself, now 67, says he’s been showing his art in bars “as long as I’ve been old enough to drink—48 or 50 years, I guess.”
He specializes in paintings depicting food-oriented baseball metaphors, and acknowledges that his style may suit the bar scene particularly well.
“Bars have TVs, and TVs have sports on,” says Russell.
Both he and Collins are quick to point out a relatively recent development that has vastly improved the bar scene when it comes to art.
“In the old days when people smoked, nobody wanted to put their work in bars, because it came home smelling like a cigarette,” says Collins.
It’s not just the smell. Russell notes that paintings exposed to cigarette smoke usually develop a “nice, leather patina.”
No more smoking does not mean that there are no more risks. Theft is one.
“There’s been very little, but it happens,” says Russell, relating an incident that occurred at Midtown’s Mount Royal Tavern.
Wait staff noticed that a party of four had become a party of three, and, simultaneously, a piece of art had disappeared from the wall.
“The wait staff surrounded them and said, ‘You’re not leaving until the art comes back,’” chuckles Russell.
“The art came back.”
Another risk—messes of all varieties are made frequently in bars.
“You don’t want to be in a place that’s rowdy because things happen,” says Collins.
Additionally, hanging art in bars is essentially a DIY endeavor for the artist.
“Generally speaking, I’m here to hang it,” says Russell. “But I don’t like people dropping off their stuff and expecting me to hang it. What I say is, ‘I will help you hang it.’”
Collins notes that, apart from a bit of Facebook chatter and a blip on the Laughing Pint website, “the artist has the lion’s share of promoting this.”
Once that work is done, though, the opening night of a one-month show can be a big deal for the artist and the bar owner.
“Shannon [owner of the Laughing Pint] has had some of her biggest nights on openings,” says Collins.
From the artist’s perspective, the event is a “chance to have a big party,” observes Russell.
“You can invite all your friends. You’re in a bar or restaurant. You’re eating or drinking. So you can have all your buddies in and show off your art.”
And another plus:
“You don’t have to clean up afterward.”
“Bars are really kind of the de facto gallery anywhere,” says Jim Burger, a well-known freelance photographer who has worked for the Sun and City Paper. “If you want to sell your work, that’s pretty much where you go now.”
Like Collins and Russell, Burger notes that today’s bars are cleaner than in years past. Furthermore, many have “jumped on the bandwagon” with art-friendly track lighting and other features that have made bar showings more palatable to artists.
“I think [showing in bars] has been pretty constant, but in some ways it’s even more accepted now,” says Burger. “Maybe back then, you would say, ‘Well, it’s in a bar,’ and they might not take you as seriously.”
Painter J. Kelly Lane has also been showing her work in bars for decades. She notes that while bars are her primary venue, she keeps herself open to galleries, which must be considered when pricing pieces for a bar showing.
“It’s a delicate line you walk,” she says. “You don’t want to ever make yourself not available to a gallery if it wants you, and if you discount your stuff too much, why would a gallery want you?”
“We’re not trying to put galleries out of business,” continues Lane. “There’s just not enough galleries in town for all the artists.”
Both Lane and Burger show at Roman’s Place, among other establishments.
Southeast bars featuring rotating, local art:
(Not an exhaustive list)
Roman’s Place, 2 S. Decker Ave.
The Laughing Pint, 3531 Gough St.
Bisto Rx, 2901 E. Baltimore St.
Todd Conner’s, 700 S. Broadway
The Life of Reilly, 2031 E. Fairmount Ave.
Salt Tavern, 2127 E. Pratt St.
by Erik Zygmont