Reflections on hanging art in a restaurant

Dance Like No One is Watching (abridged version)
Dance Like No One is Watching (abridged version)

Today I had my first unpleasant experience hanging a solo show in a local space. Granted, hanging my previous show at the Broome County Public Library was a little weird, due mostly to the strange young man who makes the conference room/gallery his office-away-from-home. But libraries are magnets for odd ducks, he was relatively pleasant and interesting — if odd — and he seemed harmless.

The restaurant I hung in this morning — which shall, in this post, remain nameless — is possibly the only full-service “health food” restaurant in Binghamton, and though I’ve never much liked their food, they have a history of local community support, as well as a long association with the local morris dance teams. (Though it doesn’t seem supportive of the community that they choose to sell their house-brand pestos at the Syracuse farmers’ market 60 miles away, rather than at Binghamton-area farmers’ markets.)

So I thought it’d be a cool place to hang my morris dance series, despite the fact that they charge an “administrative fee” to show there. My experience is that most restaurant and business proprietors consider hanging original artwork on their walls to be an even trade: publicity and possible sales for the artists, traded for free and unique wall decor for the business, along with free word-of-mouth advertising from — and food sales to — the artists, their friends and families, and the curious. This restaurant, I was told by one of the owners, allows artists to hang work there “out of the goodness of our hearts,” because of her personal love of the arts. Ah. So, what’s the fee about, then? Oh, that pays for the time she spends coordinating artists (six per year), “emailing back and forth,” and forwarding artist information to the First Friday art-walk organization. Wait, is that the odor of bull-poop, wafting by? The one restaurant I’ve shown in which charges a commission on sales also takes care of the sales. And they use a refreshingly business-like contract and art inventory, not just a CYA waiver of responsibility. So this latest venue charges whether or not there are sales, without taking either a hand in any sales or responsibility for any damage to or theft of the artwork.

I agreed ahead of time to use the existing nails and hooks so that there would be no more holes in the recycled bead-board Dance Like No One is Watching - view 2wall. (That’s wall, singular — about 25 feet of wall allowed for art. For a fee.) I was appalled to find that the existing nails and hooks were a motley and largely loose and wobbly assortment, from tiny brads and occasional low-weight picture-hooks to bent roofing nails, scattered higgledy-piggledy across the wall. (For my part, I take no responsibility for any artwork falling off wobbly nails and clobbering their customers.) There was no way to line up artwork, or to make a coherent display of the work with even spaces, inward/outward-facing content, or esthetic groupings. Nothing but random placings. And that’s not how I hang my shows.

Frustrated with the lack of arrangement possibilities, about halfway along I asked if I could remove existing nails from their places and replace them in other existing nail holes. The owner I spoke to thought that was reasonable, as long as I made no new holes. Unfortunately, the primary owner did not agree, and stopped me in mid-process to say that he simply wouldn’t allow it. Fine, I said finally. Yes, of course it’s your restaurant. I simply won’t be back.

I contemplated taking down the art I’d hung up to that point, and walking out. (In fact. looking at the photos, I think I will go back and remove one piece — an unglassed oil painting hanging far too close to a table. Just what I need: hummus splatter on “Half-Gyp.”) But I’ve already put the notice in the newspaper and spread word of mouth about my show there.

They DID kindly provide an excellent stepladder and a glass of water, offering me a cup of coffee as well, and I appreciate those courtesies. But this is also the only place where I’ve shown in which I was expected to remove the previous artist’s work from the walls before hanging my own.

I let them know that I’m not pleased with the way I had to hang my work. And I did suggest that they install a proper art hanging system if they don’t want new holes in the wooden wall. Those systems can be pricey, though, and the owner I spoke to assumes they can’t afford one. But, you know, I could devise an inexpensive, minimalist, wall-sparing hanging system for them. For a fee.

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