Showing Your Art in Cafés, Restaurants, Banks and Other Venues

Let me begin by admitting up front that I am probably the wrong person to write this post. I own an art gallery and my entire focus is on selling artwork out of my retail space. I am often asked by artists, however, what I think of an artist showing his/her work in alternate venues – cafés, restaurants, banks, etc. The truth is that I have very little experience displaying or selling art out of these kinds of venues. The right person to write this post would be an artist who has had success selling this way. I’m hoping that artist (or artists) will leave their thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

That said, lack of experience or expertise has never stopped me from having an opinion in the past, so why should it now?!

I am a big believer in exposure, in whatever form it may take. For an artist early in his/her career, showing in a non-gallery venue like a restaurant or café can be a good way for you to begin to get your feet wet. I would certainly rather have your work out where people can see it than collecting dust in the corner of your studio. At least if the work is showing, you’ve got a shot at someone seeing it and becoming familiar with your art and your name. You might even have a shot at a sale or two.

Let’s admit upfront what everyone’s motivations are and should be though, so that there is no room for disillusionment during the course of the exhibition.

The Venue’s Motivation

Restaurants, banks and other alternate venues may have many reasons to host exhibits in their spaces. The owners of the business may have a great love for the arts and may be big supporters of the arts in the community. They may also feel that their clientele is interested in the art and might want to support the artists by making a purchase. Primarily, however, I suspect that these venues want to enhance their decor with your amazing art, which will make their space look better to their customers and help them do more business. By hosting exhibitions they gain two huge advantages: First, the art doesn’t end up costing them anything. Second, they are not stuck with the art like they would be if they had purchased it. Every few months they can change the exhibition and have a totally new art collection to share with their customers.

In most cases, they are not looking at this as an opportunity to make a commission on sales and increase their revenue – consequently, they aren’t going to have much motivation to actively promote or sell the work.

The Artist’s Motivation

As an artist, you will probably feel that your number one goal in showing in this setting (or any other setting, for that matter) is sales. Because that doesn’t align with the venue’s motivation, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, I would suggest that you change your expectations and, consequently, your approach to the show.

I would suggest that you look at the display as an opportunity to increase your local exposure and make contacts with potential local supporters and buyers. With that in mind, here are some ideas that could help you achieve this goal.

Ask for a public reception at the opening and closing of the show

We have a bank in our area that hosts receptions for the artists in conjunction with their showings. They send out a beautiful invitation to their client list inviting them to the reception. They handle the catering for the event. This is a win-win for the bank and artist. It creates an opportunity for the bank to have their customers in their banking space in a non-sales situation. The bank has its top banking staff and management at the event to mingle with customers and build relationships. If the artist is known in the community it may also bring in some potential new customers.

The artist benefits by having the opportunity to meet the customers and talk about the artwork.

I like the idea of having both an opening and closing reception because the closing reception gives people who have been in the bank while the exhibition was up to come back and meet the artist.

This may not work as well in a restaurant or cafe if they don’t have a good mailing list, but it still might be worth the effort.

If you are in a smaller community, you might also be able to get some press coverage for the event. Be sure and send out a press release for the event and list it in local events calendars.

Print up stacks of business cards or postcards that visitors to the exhibition

Let’s face it, restaurant and bank staff is not trained to sell art and they’re probably not going to be very good at it. I once had an artist tell me of a conversation she overheard at a local restaurant where a patron was interested in a piece of art and a server not only told the patron that she wasn’t sure if the piece was for sale or not, but proceeded to give the patron an incorrect name for the artist.

By providing a stack of business or postcards, you can give the staff something tangible they can offer visitors when they want further information.

The card can provide your contact information and an indication that the artwork is indeed for sale.

Using vistaprint.com or another online printer will allow you to create a custom card for the event relatively inexpensively.

Create printouts that act as your salesperson

Because the staff will be unlikely to put much effort into selling your art (they’re busy enough as it is) I suggest you try and anticipate your viewer’s questions and tell them stories about your art using printouts that you display alongside your art. We use acrylic wall mount sign holders to display this kind of information in the gallery and it would work perfectly for this kind of venue as well.

You can get the displays for a couple of bucks from Amazon.com (click on the image to see a larger photo and ordering information):

You should also include your biography and a display that includes a link to your website and phone number. Ideally, you will have all of this information in a place where people are waiting and have time to browse – the bank’s lobby, or a restaurant’s reception/waiting area.

Allow visitors to join your mailing list by providing a ballot/comment box

I have long recommended that wherever an artist is – a show, art festival or other art event – they should provide visitors an easy way to sign up for the artist’s mailing list. Typically, the easiest way to do this is to have a guest book. This works very well at events where you are present and can encourage your visitors to sign up, but it won’t work as well in a bank or restaurant setting. The main problem with a guest book here is that your viewers aren’t going to have a sense of privacy. I know I would not write my contact information down in a guestbook at a restaurant where anyone can see it.

Instead, I recommend you use a locking ballot/comment box and provide viewers with comment cards and a pen.

Here’s an example of what the box might look like from Amazon (click on the image to see a larger photo and ordering information):

Now your viewers can get a sense of security and privacy when they leave their contact information.

You can create the card on your computer and it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Ask for:

  • Comments/Feedback about the artwork
  • Contact information (including address, phone number, and email) – your visitor might not include all of the info, but it sure doesn’t hurt to ask)
  • Permission to add the visitor to your mailing list. If you don’t ask for this explicit permission you really shouldn’t add the name to your mailing list.

If you use the box I’ve suggested above, you can see that you have space to add a description and instructions. I would include a photo of yourself (to make the request for feedback feel more personal) as well as some kind of “I would love to hear what you think of my artwork” text.

Be sure and stop by the venue regularly throughout the show to collect and replenish the comment cards. This is also a good opportunity to check on any other printed materials you have provided to the venue.

Try and build a rapport with the staff

I mentioned earlier that the venue’s staff is unlikely to provide much support toward your sales because they have no motivation to do so. If you can create a bit of a rapport with the staff, your friendship may be enough motivation for them to actually be helpful, and in some cases they may even become fans and big advocates of your work.

Make the Most of Every Opportunity

I don’t believe showing in cafes, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, spa’s or golf clubs is the road to fame and fortune. However, they can be a good use of your excess inventory and can help you build relationships with potential local buyers. If you are going to take advantage of this kind of opportunity, make the most of it by showing good quality work and providing your visitors with the tools mentioned above. Find ways to optimize your display and don’t be afraid to be a bit unconventional or creative in trying to maximize your results from the opportunity.

Showing your Work in a Cafe is not Going to Ruin Your Career

Finally, I am often asked if showing artwork in an alternate venue is going to ruin the artist’s chances of showing with galleries, or if it will devalue the work in the eyes of collectors. I don’t see any danger of either as long as the artist maintains consistent pricing (see our recent podcast on pricing). The truth is that no gallery is ever going to know you showed in your local coffee house, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. If that showing lead to some good contacts and a few sales, that increased awareness will only benefit the gallery in the long run.

If a client runs into your work in their favorite restaurant it’s going to be a pleasant surprise and remind them of your work. They’re going to brag to their friends that they already have one of your pieces.

The only issue you should be aware of is any conflict such an exhibition might create with the exclusivity clause in your contract with a gallery. Sometimes the contract will prohibit you from showing your work in other venues within the gallery’s trade area. Be sure and let a gallery know ahead of time if you are considering showing in this kind of venue in their locale.

Share Your Experience

As I said in the opening of the post, I have pretty limited practical experience in this area. I have shown some of my artists’ work in alternate venues on a limited basis in the past, but my advice in this area is largely based on retail principles I use in the gallery.

I would love, therefore, to hear from artists who have real-world experience in this area. Have you shown and sold your artwork in an alternate venue? Was the showing successful? What did you learn? What advice would you give an artist who is considering doing this for the first time? Would you do it again?

Share your experience in the comments below!

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