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:
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.
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?