A side of art with your cup of joe

Coffee shop ‘galleries’ offer opportunity for artists, cool vibe for owners

First of a series

AT CORPORATE COFFEE SHOPS such as Starbucks or Caffe Nero, you’re not going to see much decor other than a few plastic plants or books. But many independent stores are selling art with their coffee, adding some eye-catching paintings to their walls and providing artists with badly needed exhibition space.

Cambridge’s 1369 Coffee House has been exhibiting and selling art for some time, but two years ago owner Josh Gerber took it up a notch, hiring former barista and muralist Emma Leavitt as his arts curator. She looks for art that won’t dissuade customers from eating or drinking — work that is “sad or weirdly violent” — and that doesn’t contain nudity. Leavitt is paid $200 every two months for rotating art through Gerber’s two coffee shops in Cambridge. She takes a 20 percent commission for every piece of art that sells and also collects from the customer and remits to the state the 6.25 percent sales tax.

In 2018, Gerber’s two coffee shops sold $6,000 worth of art. Most pieces sold for between $30 and $150, but a single painting of a boat netted $2,200. The program is selling five times more art than before Leavitt took over. It’s so popular that artists are booked through October 2020.

“They’re coming out of the woodwork,” Leavitt said.

Gerber sees his art program as a win-win for him and the participating artists. “We’re not in the art business; we’re in the coffee business,” he said. “It’s more important to me to create a great environment for the store. We want to support artists. The work Emma does adds a lot of value to the shop.”

Many other coffee shops, as well as a wide assortment of other businesses, are jumping into art exhibition. In Central Square, Cambridge, where 1369 is located, the Greater Boston area and Somerville, stores with art programs include Petsi Pies, Diesel, Darwin’s, JP Licks, and Mariposa Bakery. The growth in art exhibition is occurring as galleries, maker spaces, and art studies are disappearing. Out of the Blue Art Gallery fled Central Square and Green Street Studios is shuttering.

1369 Coffee House curator Emma Leavitt holds up a recently framed artist description while talking about the shop’s art program. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Leavitt doesn’t think the expansion of coffee shop art exhibition is causing the decline in galleries and more traditional art exhibition spaces. To the contrary, she says, retailers selling art from their walls are helping struggling artists who are finding it increasingly difficult to break into the business.

A CommonWealth review of Mass Space Finder, an Airbnb of sorts for artists looking for studios to work in, or work and live in, found very few options. One of the cheapest spaces in Roxbury charges $525 a month, and the space is split between two artists. Another in Jamaica Plain is $200 a day.

An artist space database maintained by the Boston Planning and Development Agency listed 48 art spaces — 28 for living and working and 21 for working only. But many of those spaces have strict requirements – artists, for example, have to obtain a city license, a process requiring expensive gallery showings. For most artists, paying the rent at home is enough, and having a studio to work in is like having a second rent.

Most of the artists exhibited by 1369 Coffee House have a separate full-time job and create art in their spare time. The coffee shop sales are a way to get noticed, gain recognition, and help pay the bills.

“It’s validating to get them their first sale,” Leavitt said. “This is the one place around here where they’re showing their commitment to art.”

Stephanie Cohen, 25, appreciated the chance to exhibit her anatomical work at 1369 Coffee House. She has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Tufts University and a separate degree from the Museum of Fine Arts. She’s now in medical school, but she hasn’t given up on art. She often studied as an undergrad at 1369, and jumped at the chance to participate in its art program. She sold six pieces for a total of $500 and her work has attracted a bit of a following, including officials from a Cambridge biotech company that is now commissioning her to do some artwork for the firm.

“Libman Sacks Endocarditis,” an anatomical drawing shown at 1369 Coffeehouse, by artist Stephanie Cohen.

Cohen says it’s not easy for an artist to gain exposure. Galleries, she said, often assess fees on their artists and want a huge cut of any sale. They also require a large time commitment from artists. “I’m at a state in my life where it’s hard to be that available. There’s flexibility in spaces like this,” she said, referring to coffee shops.

Showing art elsewhere, like SoWa (South of Washington in Boston’s South End), can be very expensive, Cohen said. “Showing on a regular day on a weekend, just for a booth, it’s $350 a day. A studio is even more than that. It can be hard to break even,” she said. “You don’t have to pay rent to show your work at a coffee shop.”

JP Licks, which is known for the ice cream it sells, also markets locally produced art in 15 of its 17 stores. Artists are found by marketing manager Adele Nadine Traub through connections with the city of Boston, the Somerville Arts Council, JP Main Streets, and other associations.

“There’s a whole page on our site dedicated to artists in different stores. We post on social media and then, in the stores that are big enough, we host an artist reception with ice cream, coffee, and cookies,” Traub said. She said the current artist at the Coolidge Corner location sold nine paintings, while an artist at the South Bay location sold eight. Some, however, sell none. “It’s all over the place,” she said.

JP Licks takes no commission on sales. Not wanting its teenage cashier work force to deal with artwork sales, buyers are told to contact the artist directly and make the purchase.

Traub said it makes no sense for JP Licks to take a $50 commission from an emerging artist who just received $500 for a painting. “We really like being part of each community we go into and this is a great way to do it,” Traub said. “And there’s not enough spaces for artists in this city.”

Jessica TranVo hanging her art with JP Lick’s Marketing Manager, Adele Nadine Traub. (Photo courtesy of Heather Wilczynski)

Mixed media artist Jessica TranVo, a Vietnamese-American, set up her surrealist artwork at the JP Licks on Boylston Street in Boston. She produces collages, using materials from everything from magazines to vintage baking books. Her work contains queer, Asian, and feminine elements.

Five years into her professional career, she’s shown in galleries but is still considered a newer artist by the definitions set by Boston’s art world. “I think I don’t have enough clout to show on Newbury Street. Coffee houses feel more like my kind of space,” she said.

TranVo works full-time at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, but hopes that someday she will be able to work as a full-time artist with her own studio. “I’m lucky I have my space at home right now. Some people are renting studios with three to four other people,” she said.

At Mocha Maya’s in Shelburne Falls, co-owner Bruce King has had a program for artists since the Franklin County coffee house and pub opened in 2005, with art rotating every six weeks.

Photographs by artist Luke Scalise hanging in Mocha Maya’s. (Photo courtesy of Bruce King)

“We’ve had afghans on the wall, this one guy made a series of masks…this other woman showed art made out of used teabags–it’s all been really cool,” said King, who does the curating himself and takes a 20 percent commission, which until recently he and his brother, working with the artists, donate to charities. Now the commission is going toward an expansion of the space.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Last year the shop sold over $3,600 worth of art during just one exhibit. The art came from a couple that buys paintings through a fair-trade exchange with artists in Guatemala, and resells them in Massachusetts. The shop also lets the Academy at Charlemont, a nearby private middle and high school, host an annual student art night where the art is actually sold.

“It changes the room every time we get art up, like a new vibe,” King said. “Some people have come in to look at art and not even look at our menu. Kinda’ made me feel good ’cause then we’re not just a coffeehouse.”