A Taste for Art: I'll take a sandwich and that painting on the wall

They’re museums minus the stuffy, galleries sans the snooty. Restaurants, the showcases of culinary masterpieces, are now putting works of art on the menu. The painting you eye over dinner may not only be for show, it may be for sale ? part of a trend that’s delivering restaurants décor without the doldrums, artists exposure without the expense and diners cuisine with a side of culture.

Recognizing the power of aesthetics to enhance the dining experience, Monarch co-owner Jeff Orbin designed his Maplewood bistro with a built-in art gallery. Unlike most gallery owners and some restaurateurs, however, Orbin requests no commission from his artists, nor does he commission works for display. Much of Monarch’s décor is for sale. “It allows us to have rotating art and to keep the art fresh,” Orbin said of the rent-free arrangement.

The setup also attracts talent. Orbin and local artists coordinate monthly gallery shows and switch out dining-area art each season. Finding new exhibits isn’t a problem; patrons, passersby, even employees scramble to provide replacement pieces.

Orbin occasionally purchases works that capture the Monarch spirit – works such as “Estudia Mariposa,” professional printmaker Randy Barker’s homage to the restaurant’s butterfly namesake. A 6-foot, electric-blue Lepidoptera – a Barker original – greets guests entering the bistro. Other “Mariposa” specimens dapple the interior’s earth hues with transcendental tangerines, crimsons and aquas.

A perennial exhibitor at Monarch since 2001, Barker said it’s the combination of soothing surroundings and tasty cuisine that puts the bistro’s clientele right where he wants them: in the mood to buy. “I turn down shows at art galleries because I feel that this [situation] is better,” said Barker. He advised fellow artists to show their pieces in restaurants like Monarch, whose evening and weekend business can yield sales when most museums and galleries are closed. The extended hours have benefited Monarch’s artwork sales, which totaled over $180,000 in 18 months, said Orbin.

With high ceilings and minimal adornment, Kitchen K’s spacious interior feels like an art gallery. It often functions as one as well. Kitchen K partners Joe Papendick and Pablo Weiss outfit their Downtown eatery with artwork for sale, charging no commission from the local artists whose work they display. For Papendick and Weiss, exhibiting loaned, local art is like supporting family: Weiss is a board member of Art St. Louis, a not-for-profit visual arts co-op gallery; Papendick is a sculptor. It is Papendick who helps the restaurant’s exhibitors choose and arrange the pieces Weiss called “serious, original art” from artists with “an evolved sense of color and design.”

Together Papendick and long-time friend, artist Wiktor Szostalo, created “Watching a Re-Run of the Final Battle Between Good and Evil,” Kitchen K’s winter exhibition of Szostalo’s artwork. Survivors of the selection process Szostalo described as “intense” and “fruitful” mingle with the Kitchen K crowd. Paintings of limbless bodies and neon sunsets hang within reach of lunching patrons. A wooden, winged goddess stands feet away from the eatery’s open-air kitchen. But restaurant-related damage in the form of fingerprints, scratches and flying food doesn’t worry Szostalo. “If a piece of food got on the art, I’d probably leave it. I like it when works that I do pick up their own life,” he said.

Kitchen K customers wanting to make Szostalo’s work part of their lives are invited to pick up a price list at the hostess station. A month into the exhibition, the “Final Battle” had sparked interest but no sales, though to Szostalo, success doesn’t necessarily equate to dollars: “Being here [at Kitchen K] was more about exposure to a new crowd, to see how they respond.“

When C.J. Muggs Bar and Grill co-owner Sam Crall renovated his Webster Groves location in 2002, he wondered how his customers would respond to the changes. The new French doors and additional dining space delighted patrons, but the bare walls the add-ons created troubled the restaurateur. To fix the decorating dilemma, Crall dialed up the St. Louis Watercolor Society. He offered the society the offending walls as exhibit space, stipulating only that the group rotate its displays a few times each year. “We didn’t want artwork that would sit there four or five years,” said Crall.

Four times a year, the society’s 200-plus membership votes on themes for the C.J. Muggs exhibit. “When the themes for C.J. Muggs are chosen, it’s with the exhibit space in mind,” said the St. Louis Watercolor Society president, Barbara Martin Smith. Past themes for the family hangout have included “Red,” “Summer in Bloom” and “St. Louis Blues,” in honor of the Lewis and Clark expedition bicentennial and 1904 World’s Fair 100th anniversary. “Watercolor Memories,” the current exhibit on display until spring, features landscapes, still life and abstracts. Artistic style, however, has no bearing upon which pieces will be exhibited –neither does technical ability. The society invites all its members – commercial professionals to novice hobbyists – to exhibit their work.

One or two paintings sell each showing, Martin Smith estimated, but more importantly, nearly 90 percent of C.J. Muggs’ customers inspect the art show each day. That’s 500 pairs of eyes a day, seven days a week – more people than many museums or art galleries would normally pull in, at less money. “If you’re an artist exhibiting in a gallery, the gallery’s going to take 40 percent or more,” said Martin Smith. “Thank goodness this relationship keeps working.”