On a gray, windy morning earlier this week, I shuffled into a coffee shop on Audubon Street irreverently called “Koffee?” The space was flooded with warmth and dominated by the color red. Plush couches and chairs were everywhere. The cashier’s space was raised high like the bow of a ship on one side of the front room, and a table-filled atrium, off in the back, was lowered. I sunk into a leather couch and felt safely docked.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”652″ ]
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”651″ ]
Koffee? is full of quirks — any time a male customer orders a drink “for here,” the staff serves his drink in a mug with a princess on the side. The Koffee? staff doesn’t like it when customers fall asleep on a couch, but if one does, they’ll wake him up and leave him be.
After I was settled in, princess mug in hand, I noticed a collection of paintings lining the high red-painted walls. Each painting showed a neon-colored depiction of a cat. After I inquired about their origins, I learned they were created by first-graders.
Koffee?’s latest art display, “Jazz Cats in Carousels,” is their first show by kids, but only one of the many shows they rotate through each month. Displays are booked at least one year in advance, as wall space is in high demand.
New Haven’s coffee shops from Koffee? on Audubon to Blue State on York provide venues for local artists. But how do these establishments decide which artists to show? Does a display in a coffee shop help artists sell their work? And can the art on the walls of your favorite venue change how you feel about your latte? WEEKEND investigates.
When Atticus Bookstore/Café renovated in the summer of 2007, the management switched out a poster-stuffed bulletin board in favor of a full wall of oak panelling and spotlights. With shiny tile floors and a wall of glass facing Chapel Street, the establishment displays the work of a new artist every six weeks. New exhibitions are often kicked off with a food-and-wine reception that, according to Atticus café-section manager Ben Gaffney, draw around 50 people every time.
“We take this very seriously,” Atticus bookstore-section manager, Collen Carroll, said. “We have to make it professional.”
The same day the art is put on display, Atticus staff members can hear customers debating the pieces hanging over their lunch table, Gaffney said. Of the 20 works on average that each artist puts up, Carroll recalled one artist who sold all 20 of his pieces. And over their three years of displays, only two artists did not sell a painting — probably due to the $500 asking price.
The shows at Koffee? also run on an established rotation with receptions. Though the paitings in “Jazz Cats” are not for sale and have only been up since Monday, several people have walked around and asked for prices, assistant manager Shaina Hotchkiss said. According to her, selling art is actually the norm at Koffee? — she even recalls one painting that sold for about $600.
Hotchkiss thinks that coffee shops are an especially apt environment for selling art because it allows people interact with art in a more relaxed setting.
“We want people to have a random conversation about why that cat has a blue shirt,” she said. “We like that.”
Right in the middle of campus, the often-bustling Blue State Coffee offers a similar story. Filled with Yalies staring down at their laptops, Blue State has reached out to local artists since its New Haven genesis on Wall Street. When the original Blue State opened its doors in Providence in 2007, the chain’s owner, Drew Ruben ’11, noticed that customers would most often sit at tables with pictures on the walls adjacent to them.
As a result, the Blue State on York Street is lined with pieces by artists from the Elm City Artists Gallery, a co-op space located only two doors down.
“Each Blue State is meant to reflect the community of which it’s a part,” Ruben said.
Not including massive corporations Au Bon Pain, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, only four local shops don’t showcase the work by New Haven artists. One is the dim and spacious Woodland Coffee and Tea off Chapel. Sporting orange and white walls as of September this year, store manager Nebyat Shewaye said he’s reaching out to the School of Art to decorate the newly-painted space. The second is the Willoughby’s in the first floor of the Loria Center, which has no wall space because it’s basically a steel-and-glass cube. And third is Book Trader on Chapel, another bookstore-coffee shop hybrid that has been displaying the same six photographs for the last 11 years. Photographs that, according to store manager Jennifer Tift, were taken by Paul Duda, the owner’s brother.
But Book Trader is inherently different — it sees itself as “a café more than a coffee shop.”
“We try to get people in and out,” Tift said.
Still, Tift said she drops by Koffee? every once in a while to see what they’ve put up.
New Haven’s most visible local artist might be Tizzie Mills, who spends most days outside the Blue State on York Street — or, when the weather is cold, inside by the window — drawing highly detailed comic book characters. Though he’s worked on the characters since he was a child, Mills started working in the same space six years ago, during its years as Koffee 2. Students often approach him for commissions, or to ask him about his current projects. Soon after Blue State on York opened in June this year, the coffee shop held a reception for Mills that drew about 50 people.
“This is like my gallery, my second home,” he said, warmly gesturing to the packed-in space.
But as of yet, his work is not on Blue State’s walls. Mills has a Facebook page, and a following built by word-of-mouth. But he doesn’t think it’s enough, and hopes one day to have his own gallery.
Painter Anne Doris-Eisner, a member of the Elm City Artist Gallery, has had her work up at Blue State on York since its opening this past spring. Yet she isn’t very hopeful when it comes to coffee shop displays. She is not sure that anyone notices the paintings on the walls and, though works from the co-op are on sale and have been up for six months now, no artist has sold a single painting despite the exposure they receive in the coffee shop. Price could be a factor — the works range from $125 to almost $800. And Regina Thomas, another member of the Elm City co-op, conceded that a few scattered customers, usually from out of town, have wandered into the gallery after seeing the art in Blue State. Still, Eisner thinks that most customers in Blue State are simply too preoccupied.
“Unless something really grabbed you, would you even be paying attention to what was on the wall?” she asked.
Ultimately, Eisner isn’t sold on Blue State’s intentions.
“I don’t think they’re worried about supporting artists,” she told me. “I think they want us to help them decorate their walls.”
Outside the other Blue State, I mentioned this conflict to Josh Levine, a local artist who has been selling his drawings — which he describes as “subconscious” — outside on York Street for the last three months.
“Blue State’s trying to be more corporate,” he said. “Someone’s more likely to buy a piece at Koffee? because it’s a slow-paced environment.”
But if given the choice, Levine would rather get his work shown in a more corporate environment, because more people pass through — “even if people don’t stop all that often.”
But not just anything can go in a coffee shop.
“Sometimes someone shows us their work and you just have to say no,” Ben Gaffney said.
A coffee shop’s atmosphere defines what goes on display. The artwork has to reflect the feel of the space. In Koffee? four high school freshmen who attend a nearby art school described the space as warm enough to be the home of a friend or family member, and that “Jazz Cats” complements the homey feel of the shop.
“It adds to the whole picture,” one of them said.
Coffee shop art benefits everyone involved. Artists get more exposure, customers feel more at home, and coffee shop owners just want their customers to be happy. So the next time you head to Blue State to work on a paper, take a look at the walls before you hunker down with your books and latte — you never know what you’ll see.