Artistic Licence – The Bars That Are Doubling As Galleries In London

There was a time when the closest you’d get to art in a bar was the graffiti in the men’s bogs, but today there’s much more to the art of drinking. A concept artist imagines and designs things that do not yet exist.

It’s 4 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. The tanned leather sofa has almost swallowed me whole. I grab a magazine from the rack and with an ice cold bottle of beer straight from the fridge, finally now I can truly relax. The walls are covered with garish, but intriguing artworks and I still haven’t decided which I prefer, but they are quite engaging and in a way they comfort me as much as the sofa. There’s a definite movement in the world of bars to create environments that are as comfortable as your own front room. Bar names such as Living Room, Front Room, Bedroom and Home are all proof positive that bars are trying to offer their customers that real convivial feel. The concept of putting art on the walls, though, is often far more significant than just aesthetics.

Camberwell’s Sun & Doves was one of the very first bars to use its walls to exhibit artworks and it has become know as much for its exhibitions as for its drinks. “Quite a few people look around and don’t buy a drink.” Insists Mark Dodds, Sun & Doves’ Managing Director. “But then, we probably sell 4 or 5 pieces per show.” Mark puts on a new show every two months and has seen works go for as much as £2000. The art displays have been a key focus in the marketing of the Sun & Doves and until recently it was quite a unique angle for them. The bar is now listed on most art gallery websites and has a mailing list of 800 locals who come down specifically for their exhibitions. Around the corner, and indeed the bar in which I am sitting, notepad in hand, bottle of Becks on the table, Snug has been supporting local amateur talent from Camberwell Art College since it opened two years ago. It was also the chosen bar for Camberwell Arts Week to link hands with and Steven Knowles, the curator involved, oversaw the project. “We sold 5 or 6 pieces directly through Snug. There was a private viewing as you would expect with a gallery, combined with the bar’s usual events and nights. We got great feedback and the concept of in-bar exhibitions works well as long as the art is not too conceptual and not all of one styling.”

Steven is now Co-Director of the Century and Mafuji art galleries in Shoreditch, but believes bars are a good place for artists to launch themselves. “Two of the artists I work with had a very successful series of evenings last year at the Foundry, using VJs to mix images and music together. One of the guys went to America and has now been given his own show on cable – so a success story! Bars are always a good start as your audience is that much wider than you would find in a gallery.”

“People are often so stuck up in galleries,” adds Siraz Izhar who runs Public Life, a unique fusion of bar, gallery and art workshop located in the peculiar space of a former public toilet on Commercial Road. “In a gallery people are too concerned about whether an artwork is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. A bar is a far more exciting space to display art as it is already a meeting point for like-minded people.” The Strike Foundation is a charitable organisation set up by Siraz, an artist himself, to support and encourage creativity. Most of the works on display in the bar are digital media and very contemporary concepts. The crowd that frequents the bar is about as cool as you get and considering it’s slap bang in the middle of Shoreditch, that’s pretty damned cool. Soho’s latest style bar, Waikiki is taking a different angle on art. Every fortnight, Waikiki offers its customers a chance to experience art ‘live’. The events are called First Course and are as varied as the world of art is in itself. You may on one Saturday evening happen across a graffiti artist befuming the air with primary colours or an urban sculptor being creative with a fruit crate, or perhaps a graduate fashion show – all combined with an eclectic mix of jazz-influenced electronic music. In a bar that holds just a hundred people, that has quite some impact.

“Drinking and art go hand in hand,” comments Siraz. “In our culture, people enjoying themselves is all about relaxing, socialising and your circle of friends. Art is there for our enjoyment.” Mark agrees: “Galleries are very sterile places. In a bar people can relate to art as it would be in their own front room.”

Of course it’s not just the bars and the customers that benefit from this new creative movement. In the world of art, it’s as difficult to get a space for your artworks as it is for a musician to get airplay for a new record. If you’re unknown then you have no following yet and no-one wants to know you. It’s at this critical stage that artists really need the exposure and the support. There are a number of organisations and sponsorships that get behind young talent such as the Strike Foundation and Beck’s Futures, which is the UK’s largest arts prize touring ten up-and-coming artists nationally. But bars offer a readily accessible space to amateur artists, making sure that artworks are where they should be – in the public eye – and not stored away in some dark and dusty attic.

Jeremy Mascarenhas has been editorial director of the seminal London Bar Guide magazine [] for 10 years. He is also global editor of The World Bar Guide, an online guide to the best bars in the world, publisher of The Big Directory (a bar industry bible) and a freelance drinks marketing consultant. He has worked with most of the leading drinks groups including Red Bull, Moët Hennessy, Diageo, Brown Foreman, Budweiser, Asahi, Tiger Beer and Grand Marnier. Through his publishing company Scene It, as well as the London Bar Guide, he has published guides to Sherry, UK nightlife, cocktails, Japanese restaurants, the much lauded London Restaurant Guide and much more besides. Click here for more details about freelance artist work.

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