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3 Restaurants Garnish Meals With Artworks


Contemporary art is escaping the confines of traditional galleries and museums and finding its way into new public environments, from storefront museums in shopping malls to banks and office buildings. And now, restaurant customers can peruse and even purchase contemporary art while they dine.

According to Patty Herbst, who organizes art exhibits at Piret's restaurant in Costa Mesa, such galleries are part of a trend that has moved west from New York. Orange County now has at least three restaurants exhibiting the work of local artists.

Laguna Beach's Tavern by the Sea is the veteran among the three, having featured changing art shows for about two years. Five Feet, also in Laguna Beach, has given its wall space over to contemporary art exhibits since opening nine months ago; Piret's in South Coast Plaza is now offering the third in a series of monthlong exhibits by local artists.

Herbst, an employee of Piret's cooking school and an art student at UC Irvine, proposed the idea of a dining room gallery to Bill Beckett when he became general manager of the restaurant in February. Beckett says he had been looking for something to do with the back dining room, and "decided to fly with it" when he heard Herbst's idea. Herbst now curates the space, bringing in artists she meets through school or through local galleries.

When artworks displayed at Piret's are sold, the restaurant receives a 10% commission and Herbst, as organizer, also receives 10%. At Tavern by the Sea and Five Feet, artists keep all proceeds. Most commercial galleries take commissions of 33% to 50%, according to Herbst.

The restaurant shows give emerging artists who have not yet broken into the professional gallery circuit a chance to show their work, Herbst says. "For young artists, it's great when you sell something, but even more than that you want your work to be seen."

Artist Joan Corman, organizer of the Tavern by the Sea exhibits, agrees. "It's difficult to get a show like this," she explained. "It's difficult to get any kind of a one-person show." Corman says restaurant showings offer artists a much freer hand in selecting and placing works than do conventional art galleries.

At Tavern by the Sea, the restaurant provides the wall space and throws a reception for the featured artist. The artist is responsible for reception invitations and for handling any sales that result from the show. Corman proposed the gallery idea to Tavern by the Sea when she was president of the Artists Council of the Laguna Art Museum. "I was interested in getting art out into public places," she explained.

That also is one of Herbst's objectives--to bring the work of emerging contemporary artists to people who may be intimidated by the "elitism" of art galleries. "Everybody eats, but not everybody goes to art galleries. It makes art more accessible to the public," Herbst said of the restaurant shows. "I still like galleries and museums, but I think there's room for art in other places."

Five Feet owner Michael Kang, a former architectural design student who has been in the restaurant business for 12 years, says he has long dreamed of owning a combined restaurant and gallery, and he found the large walls of Five Feet perfectly suited to that dream.

"I'm looking for exposure for the artists and for the restaurant," said Kang, who organizes the shows. "Basically, I run it like a gallery, but I don't call it a gallery."

Kang, Herbst and Corman report that the exhibits have been well-received by patrons. Corman also likes to gauge the reaction of the restaurant's staff to the shows.

"People on the staff were very slow to accept the (abstract) work," Corman said. But she said she has watched the workers develop an appreciation for even the most adventurous work.

And if it is affecting the staff this way, Corman said, "it must be subliminally educating the guests as well."

Corman said Tavern by the Sea co-owner Barry Brief has not rejected any of the exhibit choices she has made so far. Still, Corman tries to select works that she believes will not upset customers--after all, she says, people will be eating among the artworks.

"The mood of the work is important," said Corman, who shies away from what she calls the "negativity" of some current Expressionist art. "I like it, but I don't know that I would hang it in my dining room. I like to see it in a gallery or museum."

Tavern by the Sea is showing paintings by Debra Davidson through Saturday, and a new exhibit of works by Georgia Kellogg and Steve Sargent will open Sunday.

Four artists--Daniel Winchester, David Hockney, Les Biller and Dick Hersey--are exhibiting at Five Feet. Kang says he plans to concentrate more on one-artist shows, and on Sunday ), a new show will open featuring the work of Antonio Arellanes.

Julie Medwedeff's dream-inspired etchings, woodblock prints and paintings will be on display at Piret's through May 24. The next day, Herbst will begin exhibiting her own work.

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