Come On, Eileen: Ritual Owner Removes Challenging Art Show

 
By 3 July 2011
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Breaking first via Marginally Yours, then picked up by Mission Mission and SFist.com, there’s a swirl of controversy surrounding a recent short-lived art show at Ritual Coffee’s Mission District location.

The art show in question involves photographs that seem benign at first glance: snapshots of a dwelling space, a made bed, a puppy on the floor, a trunk packed with manila envelopes and photographs. The show is titled “Making Room”, and it’s the work of Varese Layzer, a San Fracisco-based artist who grew up in Manhattan - you can see the show in its entirety by clicking here. Only upon reading the artist’s statement do patrons learn the context behind the photos:

In 2010, my mother died. As the last living member of my family, it fell on me to clear out the cluttered 1,100-square-foot rent-controlled apartment where I grew up and my parents had lived for 40 years. The process would take three months. During that time of work and grief, I also had to live there. I documented the process of making room for me at 5E.

After giving away thousands of pounds of belongings, I moved the remaining 4,000 pounds to a San Francisco storage space. Slowly, I made room to bring those objects into my world here: a painting, a clock, a lamp. I documented that process too.

Apartment 5E has since been bought and its walls demolished by a new owner. The objects and these pictures are all that remains.

Heavy stuff, to be sure – evidently too heavy for Ritual to exhibit for more than a few days. Ritual’s owner, Eileen Hassi, was forced to make a difficult decision: Continue to display art that she felt was inappropriate for her cafe, or remove the show and void Layzer’s contract. Ultimately Eileen made the latter choice, by first removing the artist’s statement, and soon after removing the photography itself. In response to losing her show – a show that she claims cost $3000 to produce – Varese Layzer took to her Flickr account, posting the following email she received from Eileen Hassi. In the name of context and fairness, here is the entirety of Eileen’s email, which is at times sincere, at other times a bit flippant:

Hi Varese,

My name is Eileen and I’m the owner of Ritual. It’s too bad that I haven’t actually met you, as this would probably make more sense if you knew me. I asked one of my employees to take down your artist statement when I was in the cafe on Sunday. I needed to leave directly to go up to an event I was running in Napa and was away for the rest of the weekend.

I know that you’re upset and you’re going to think I’m the bad guy in this situation, but allow me to explain my position: Your art is serious work. It’s too serious for the cafe. It’s dealing with real stuff, real emotions, loss, attachment, family, death. It belongs in a real gallery, where people are in a space to contemplate these things. The art that belongs in a cafe is fluffier stuff, stuff that doesn’t make people think about the tough questions in life: pictures of telephone poles, birds sitting on the wires, tapestries of heavy metal lyrics. Whimsical stuff.

The curator made a mistake, I fired him. I want you to take you[r] shown down as soon as possible. I know that you put a great deal of effort into the show, so it’s not a total loss for you, I’d like to offer you $300. I have a great deal of respect for your work, and would not put it in jeopardy, it’s just not the right art for the space. Your artist’s statement is safe, just tucked away. It was just too intense for people looking for escapism with their coffee. I have another show ready to go, so please let me know when you’ll be taking the show down.

Like I said, it should be in a gallery, where you can have a real opening, with wine and cheese. My boyfriend has a gallery — give him a call — [number redacted]. I have another friend who just took over a gallery space on 6th Street as well and is looking for work to show.

Like I said, I’m sure you think I’m being the bad guy in this situation, but really no one should have led you to believe this belonged in a coffee shop.

Best,
Eileen

SFist jumped on this story as indicative of the “Starbucks-ification of Valencia Street”, and the time line of events seems to indicate something of a communication breakdown at Ritual – removing a statement without the artist’s permission? Tearing down the show and firing your curator? We aren’t cafe owners, but surely this could have been handled with more tact.

More importantly, we think this story begs a wider question for our industry: What exactly is the role of art in cafes? Do you agree with Eileen when she says “The art that belongs in a cafe is fluffier stuff, stuff that doesn’t make people think about the tough questions in life”? Is there room for “serious” art on our cafe walls? Would you allow a controversial, “serious”, or otherwise challenging show like this one to be exhibited in your cafe?

 
  • Varese says:

    I am happy to report that a gallery owner has invited me to show the work. Making Room will be at Krowswork Gallery, 480 23rd St., Oakland, krowswork.com, from March 30th to April 28th, along with two other artists’ work. (I also have another “serious” series in this show.) The opening is the evening of March 30th. I hope anyone reading this will come out to see it — despite the fact that the opening reception may be coffee-free. Serious responses to the event — like this article — ultimately led this gallery owner to find me. So thank you.

    Reply
  • Tina Ristretto says:

    You FIRED the curator? Seriously? Over the choice of art? You simply have to make this right. Pay the $3,000 to the artist who prepped that much for the show and was not able to recoup any of her costs and either offer the curator their job back or pay three months severance. This was poor management on your part. I’ve been there. Take care of this.

    Reply
  • Carter Fields says:

    First rule of good management is establish clear and concise expectations, check your people’s work and then take action to fix the problem if there is one. Portraits of Burningman stuff is still portraits which Hassi said she wasn’t interested in.
    I’m taking a wild guess here, but I bet a fucking customer complained about the show and she freaked out. When was the last time Hassi actually knew what her business was REALLY doing? With her choice of romantic partner, it makes it obvious she lacks in great common sense and logic, not to mention taste.
    I am confused as to why she couldn’t be honest about the problem, which according to her BF was violation of contract by switching the art to be shown without notice.

    Reply
  • cpt. neckbeard says:

    As Tyler points out, cafes were (not to be too in tense) a major factor in the culture of the Enlightenment, as well as being important gathering spaces for other cultural movements (May ’68 in Paris, Beat culture at (sigh) Trieste). I can guarantee you that the people involved with these movements enjoyed their coffee with a good dose of controversial conversation, spurred on by a healthy dose of coffee, and probably had some coffee afterwards.

    As the proprietor of her cafe, Eileen can choose to do whatever she wants with it – and i can respect that. I’m interested to see who, however, will choose to be the hotbed of cultural change and discussion. What better topic of discussion than the art on the wall when the philosophic well runs dry?

    Also: is it really art if it doesn’t bring any passion into play, and make you think a little? Maybe it can only be called decor at that point.. and no need for a curator at all, in that case.

    Who *will* step up and admit political beliefs, aesthetic differences, and controversial opinions besides Brown Coffee? I really enjoy voting with my dollar, but the campaigns are a bit flaccid at this point.

    Reply
  • jlee says:

    Given that the clientele at Ritual are shallow, hipstery, mirror and mac-gazers who most certainly do not want to ‘think about the tough questions in life’, I think this all worked out for the best.

    Reply
  • Tyler says:

    While it might be the case that spaces for branded late-capitalist experience, such as Starbucks and the like are best suited to photos of telephone poles, birds and cute frogs etc., if we are to consider a more communitarian, humanist vision, the coffee house certainly has a serious role to play as not only a platform for the contest of ideas, but also as a processor and developer of culture and as a builder of communities. A perfectly appropriate site for heavy things. What strikes me with this story is that a roaster that utilizes socialist iconography and reference to core (and heavy) elements of human cultural practice for the construction of it’s highly respected corporate image would assert that it is not interested in facilitating the contemplation of serious social/cultural issues and go on to say, sorry we are into fluffier things. And then go on to fire a curator who is open to less fluffy things. Wow! This is a total contradiction with the anticipated corporate character.

    What is a coffee house if not a place to be real and encounter the real? Is coffee not a facilitator of amplified sobriety? An entry drug to the Enlightenment? I am confounded. If this had taken place at Starbucks, it would be par for the course, but it took place at Ritual (insert logo here). Unexpected.

    If it is any consolation, I would like to formally and publicly invite Varese Layzer to show her photographs, including her artists statement at our gallery/cafe in North Vancouver. Cafe for Contemporary Art. We’ll have to work on timing and I’ll have to check my account, but I may be able to spill air miles for artist’s travel as well.

    And, finally, I would like to know who this mistakenly fired curator is and extend my understanding and concern. I can imagine what torment this situation must have brought to him. Yikes.

    Here’s hoping that somewhere the coffee house and it’s associated roasting culture can sincerely act as an antidote to the drunken insanity of our maxed-out times.

    Reply
    • shaggy says:

      Based on your vision kind sir, the artist’s ideas were developed, processed and then lost the contest on this platform of ideas. Why are you then confounded?

      Reply
  • Greg says:

    I moonlight as a freelance photographer and have faced the decision for choosing appropriate venues for displaying my work. The subject matter in my images must fit and coincide with the space in which my art is hung and who my audience may be. I honestly believe that Varese Layzer’s series, “Making Room,” as beautifully poignant and heavy as it is, could have been displayed in a better location than the bright and cheery space that is Ritual Coffee in the Mission.
    I work full-time as a manager for two coffee shops and we absolutely must screen every artist’s work before it hangs on our walls, ensuring it will be a good fit for our cafe culture and all of our customers to see and admire each month.
    Eileen was tactful and just in her decision to remove the show. I can understand her desire for keeping the vibe right in her shop and the art on the walls plays a huge role for a customer’s daily experience. She’s a pretty right-on lady, and if she felt the show was inappropriate for Ritual, than it absolutely was.
    Although extremely personal and deep, I did find “Making Room” a fantastic journalistic approach for documenting the final chapter of material possession in this human life.

    Reply
  • Joe Marrocco says:

    I would be interested to hear a more official statement from Ritual and Ms. Hassi on this. I understand that this is a letter that she had written, but I am still offering the benefit of the doubt.

    Is there a continual movement within the American public arena to dumb down the arts and tranquilize all things that could possibly be interpreted as controversial? Yes. Is there an opposing movement? Yes. At the end of the day, we can cast stones at both sides, but, yes, it is Ms. Hassi’s shop. Her shop, her call, her win or her loss. I’m sure that due to the controversy and the newly found platform, this art will be viewed by far more people, and most likely interpreted in a much more sincere light. I wish both the artist and the shop owner all the best.

    On a personal note, I find it to be very interesting that the subject matter of the art was how impossible it was to move these photographed items out of a small, private place, and the toil and pain involved in doing so. Yet, when hung in the public view it took a matter of hours to days. No wonder we work so hard to conceal our personal struggles and blemishes. In response to the question of the role of the cafe, my personal idealistic version would be a place where people connect, exchange ideas, work on tough philosophical, and drink amazing coffee. However, to other is it simply about the coffee. Coffee, to me, is a means, not an end. I mean no disrespect or condescension toward Ritual. I’m a huge fan. Different strokes for different folks and all…

    Reply
  • Todd says:

    Did they not know the artist statement before allowing it to go up? And, secondly, “fluffier stuff”? Really? I get the whole ” their shop, do what they want” argument but something seems a little strange here.

    Reply
  • Joe says:

    Yeah. So yeah, not a controversial art show. I was hella confused reading this because I kept feeling like I missed something that actually described controversy.

    Also it is her cafe, not yours. So whatever.

    Reply
    • Drew Closer says:

      Agreed. In the end it’s her store. And, I assume, this was a letter she wrote to one person. I’d love to shake out the inboxes of the various folks in sf and elsewhere to see what personal biases and opinions might cause a tempest-in-a-teapot such as this.

      If people want to point to this one store owner and say ‘that’s starbucks’ well, they need to look around. The haters are literally and figuratively naked in this situation. Hopefully they can find other small fires to put out once they’ve stomped this situation out to the fullest degree of their satisfaction from the safe striking distance that the internet provides.

      Reply
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