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Coffee with a Shot of Art

There is no place I enjoy more on a snowy December morning than stepping into a warmly-lit coffeehouse buzzing with java, chatter and art. The environment is simply soothing.

Mo’Joe Coffeehouse on Michigan Street displays works of art for sale by local self-taught artists with advance permission from the shop’s owner. Currently, Angelina Fielding’s art is featured along with her bio and artist statement. According to the barista, “the art adds to the atmosphere” but doesn’t necessarily sell. My Starbucks on Massachusetts Avenue is in the process of establishing a program for local artists. In the meantime, the store encourages partners (employees) to display their work, along with other individuals connected to the store’s management. Nathan Wohlt and Jenny Elikins are a few of the artists with work on view. “A lot of artists work in coffeeshops so it’s a good place to sell your work,” said the barista. But where did the connection between art and coffeehouses originate?

Coffeehouses inspired the origin of countless noteworthy institutions and ideas. In the late 1700s, the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s began in rooms attached to coffeehouses where sales of art took place. Coffeehouses aided in the business of buying and selling art and were essential to the success of an artist who could promote their work at little or no cost. It makes perfect sense that today’s coffeehouses continue to sell art from their walls.

A bit more history — coffeehouses originated in Middle Eastern countries in the 1400s as places where men gathered to drink Arabic coffee or tea and listen to music, read and play games. Discussions of war and politics also became common. In the 1600s, coffee arrived in Europe and coffeehouses quickly gained popularity. Venice, Oxford, London, Paris and Boston all boasted the first coffeehouses in their regions. They were places of “great social levell[ing], open to all men and indifferent to social status, and as a result associated with equality and republicanism,” according to a Wikipedia article. Business could be conducted and new ideas could spread unobserved by government. It is interesting to know that women were not allowed in coffeehouses in Europe, yet were in Germany.

The coffeehouse was an alternative to the “pub” and precursor to the more elite “club”. In the United States, coffeehouses first popped up in immigrant communities and attracted the free thinking Beat generation, the youth counterculture, solo musicians and today, wireless internet seekers. Coffee anyone?

Filed under: Art, Current Events, Local

13 Responses to “Coffee with a Shot of Art”

  • avatar
    Christy Says:

    This is fascinating!! Coffeehouses were also important in Vienna, especially during Schubert’s time as he and his circles of friends would meet in them.

  • avatar
    Admiral Says:

    Who actually thinks of these places as social levelers? Hardly! If anything, it’s the complete opposite. They’re enclaves of the class-based. They are physically open, but there’s certainly no gathering of the lower class there: they don’t have the money to blow on frivolous expenditures like coffee. And in general they only bring in people of different ages who are in very small, narrow groups in our society.

    They’re fascinating places, and I’m all for the people who inhabit them glorifying them — but when crazy claims start being made…? :)

  • avatar
    Despi Says:

    Social leveler? Probably not…but I also think the coffeehouse crowd is more broad than you assert here. If you think beyond economics, lots of people have bought in to the notion that these places are trendy and cool to hang out in, so left-brainers go there in droves to “think outside the box” and thus the Starbucks phenomenon has created a very different social experience in America as a result.

    In other countries, cafes and coffeehouses are places still filled with people from all walks of life that are taking the time to pause with a friend or be alone with their own thoughts,…really live life…which is what Americans are trying to do with art in these places…create some authenticity of experience. I would just ask that the art get better…

  • avatar
    Noelle Says:

    From my experience working at the busiest Starbucks in Washington, D.C. (Dupont Circle), I saw folks from all walks of life, including a large homeless population who came in for coffee, to read the paper and warm up along with everyone else.

  • avatar
    Daniel Says:

    I think Starbucks has skewed what a good coffee house is traditionally all about. I don’t think the concept really caught on much in the U.S. until Starbucks though.

  • avatar

    Great article, know exactly what you mean. I just wish there would be more coffee houses with art displays where I reside.
    And thanks for the great info on where the coffee houses originated from. I did not know that prior to reading your article.

    Regards, Anna

  • avatar
    Jennifer Says:

    I actually have the opposite thing going on. I have a young emerging gallery and we have decided to do coffee and tea, as well as WiFi. I want to introduce art to people that normally would not attend a gallery opening due to intimidation, or other inferior problems. So with academic, young informed art, comes a relaxing neutral place where people can come in and come upon something they may not have otherwise ventured into, a real gallery, with wonderful work by artists who are working in graduate school, or just out.

  • avatar
    Noelle Says:

    Great twist Jennifer- Thanks for sharing your idea!

  • avatar

    Coffee houses have been classic places of gathering and convesation for centuries. In my travels I find that this is still true worldwide. I think Starbucks, Coffee Beanery and other corporate chain coffee houses are not the best examples of the coffee house ethos.

  • avatar
    chris Says:

    well done! Thx!

  • avatar

    Very nice ideas. Congrats and thank you

  • avatar
    Tatiana Says:

    great post hope to see some additional comments here…

  • avatar

    Hi Noelle,

    I just read your blog, fascinating. Thank you for including information on my artwork, I truly appreciate it.

    Wish I could have met you and thanked you in person. I do hope you enjoyed the art!

    Best Regards,

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