Art while you eat! Local artists love showing in restaurants

Artist Robine Wright is shown painting at Seasons restaurant in Springfield. Her artwork is currently being featured at the restaurant. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Artist Robine Wright is shown painting at Seasons restaurant in Springfield. Her artwork is currently being featured at the restaurant. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Don’t be surprised these days to find the salmon cakes or beef filets at your favorite restaurant served up with a generous side helping of landscapes or portraits. Area artists and restaurant owners have found that joining forces is a winning situation for both.

Libby Rudolf, a local artist who’d been putting her work in gallery shows since her kids were in diapers in the 1990s, says her professional life changed dramatically in 2006 when she found a new vehicle for showing off and selling her paintings — area dining establishments.

For Rudolf it all began with her first solo show at the Emporium Wines & The Underdog Cafe in her home town of Yellow Springs. A show at the Winds Cafe followed. Since that time, she’s had exhibits at a number of other restaurants. Her work is currently on display through March 25 at Wheat Penny in Dayton.

“Having my work in a restaurant meant it was probably seen and appreciated — and purchased — by more people than having it in a bank lobby,” she says. “It widens the audience, and people who may not go into a museum or gallery can enjoy the art in a more casual atmosphere. It’s definitely working for me!”

The restaurant folks are just as pleased. Margaret Maddox, owner of Seasons Bistro & Grille in Springfield, says that from the time her restaurant opened nine years ago the plan was to keep everything on a seasonal rotation — including the food, the art and even the color of the napkins.

“We wanted to fully embrace the seasonal concept,” she says. “We love that part of living in Ohio – we get to experience all four seasons.” By the time a new season rolls around, she adds, the excitement builds among both staff and regular patrons in anticipation of the new art. “It’s just a fun way to keep things interesting for everyone.”

Like some other restaurants in our area, Maddox doesn’t take a commission from the sale of artwork. “We do ask the artists to give us one piece from the show that we then hang in our permanent collection on the north wall of the restaurant,” she says.

Lisa Wolters, owner of Yellow Springs Brewery, has featured local art since she and her husband first opened their taproom doors four years ago. “If someone on our staff sells a piece of art, that person receives half of the 20 percent commission that goes to the brewery,” she says.

In addition to paintings, she sometimes put up temporary shelving for a display. A case in point is the next show which opens March 6 and features the latest work from ceramicist Beth Holyoke. Her Art + Ale exhibit will feature a series of ceramic plates entitled “The Refugee Series,” inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis.

In addition to having postcards or artist brochures available to dining patrons, Maddox also hosts an opening artist reception for each new exhibit at Seasons. “We provide complimentary hors d’oeuvres and we invite anyone and everyone to come in and meet the artist and see his or her show,” says Maddox. “We always publicize the event on our webpage and social media. It’s a fun way for customers to meet the artists and for the artist’s friends and family to come in and share in the excitement of the show.”

Robine Wright, whose work is currently on display at Seasons, came up with the idea of painting live during her artist reception.

“As the customers entered the restaurant she had them paint a little part of a painting and then sign the back,” Maddox says.” It was the first time we’ve done something like that, but the customers seemed to have fun with it.”

Selecting the artists

Martha Mendelsohn, a photographer herself, has been responsible for choosing the art for both Meadowlark and Wheat Penny restaurants since their inceptions. She says owner Elizabeth Wiley has always been committed to showcasing local art.

“The restaurants are her primary focus, but we needed art for the walls and she wanted a venue for local artists because we have such a strong art community,” Mendelsohn explains, adding that initially it was hard to find artists so she started reaching out to those she knew personally.

These days Mendelsohn gets lots of inquiries from those who want to exhibit their work. “They are both successful restaurants and so a lot of people come through,” she says. “Three months is a long time to have their work on display. The art sells well and we don’t take a commission.” Artists set their own prices which can range from $200 up to thousands.

Mendelsohn says with four shows a year she tries to vary the type of work shown. “If I have a photographer, for example, I’ll follow up with abstract painter. I like to shake it up,” she says. At the moment, at Meadowlark she is showing the work of three Wright State alumni — Johanna Schmitz, Angel Ranly and Phuong Hien — and Crystal Tursich, a Columbus photographer.

Maddox says artwork on display at Seasons is limited to art that can be hung from the picture rail. “We have had everything from photography to watercolors to ceramic plates,” she says. “We have worked with local organizations as well as individuals from Springfield, Yellow Springs and even Columbus. Anyone who is interested in doing a show here just needs to contact us and send us samples of their work.”

Prices for artwork at Seasons, she says, typically range from $25 to $400. “We usually sell at least a few pieces from each show, but it varies,” she says. “The season when we featured the artists from Quest Adult Services — the adult day service through Developmental Disabilities of Clark County — we sold every single piece! It was very exciting and the community really got behind it.”

Expanding the fan base

Mixed-media artist Julie Beyer typically sells her work at art fairs, online through her website or from her Front Street studio. But she’s also had great success through restaurant sales.

As a new artist starting out eight years ago, her goal was to produce enough pieces to show at a restaurant. Once she had enough, Meadowlark allowed her to exhibit her work. She had a second show at the restaurant two years ago and labels it “a great gig!”

“It was an excellent way for me to introduce my work and develop a fan base,” she says. ” Many of the people who purchased something from my first show have bought several more pieces since then. Surprisingly, people from all over the country have purchased my art after seeing it there —some were in town for business and some were visiting family. I have shipped paintings to California, Florida, and Missouri and I had one woman from Toledo contact me last year to commission several pieces for her new home. She told me she had been carrying around my business card since picking it up at my Meadowlark show eight years ago … she even showed me the beat-up card in her wallet!”

Mendelsohn says patrons are asked to contact the artist directly if they wish to purchase art. “It’s not closely policed, we do ask the artists to provide prices and contact information, ” she says. “The restaurant doesn’t get involved in negotiations.”

Artists are asked to leave their artwork for the duration of the show. “If it’s a situation where someone wants to buy art immediately or lives out of town, we ask the artist to come in at a quiet time and replace that piece,” she says. ” It does happen occasionally.”

A growing trend

Mary Kay Smith, owner of The Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs, has been hosting exhibits at her restaurant for the past 40 years. “I fancy myself an artist-wanna-be,” she admits, “and for me that’s transferred itself into cooking and food.”

She selects the artists herself and changes the art every two months. In addition to returning artists, Smith tries to include young artists who may not have shown their work previously. For the most part, she says, everything runs smoothly.

“We’ve had a couple of complaints over the years about material that is too political or provocative,” she says, adding that she doesn’t censure the art but, on occasion, has told an artist that explicit full frontal nudity in the context of a dining experience may not be appropriate. “You expect that when walk into an art gallery or museum but not at a restaurant dinner table.”

Smith sees local art in restaurants as a growing trend. “It’s so much better than canned art or art that never changes,” she insists. “It’s never boring and is always fresh!”

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