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Starbucks As Art Curator?

August 2, 2007

It’s tempting to be snooty about Starbucks’ attempt to enter the world of fine art. I mean, it’s one thing for the caffeine giant to hock Paul McCartney CDs and Oprah-style reading material in its stores, but what gives the company license to start putting on art exhibits?

Despite certain reservations, I can’t but think that the organization’s local Avant-Grande art project is a good thing on the whole. Now in its second year, it’s an annual exhibition of visual art by the company’s San Francisco baristas. The project is being organized in conjunction with the Academy of Art University. The exhibition takes place on Saturday 15 September at Terra Gallery (511, Harrison Street in San Francisco.)

Avant-Grande is a silly name for the project. It sounds like an expensive coffee drink. “Before Big?” The project’s title, I guess, is supposed to be a double-play on the idea of up-and-coming artists and the aesthetic term “avant-garde.” But these days, that term – associated, as it is, with art movements of the early 20th century – is very much out of date.

And why only exhibit the work for one measly day? It seems hardly worth the effort in a way.

I’m also not all that keen on the marketing of the exhibition. Just listen to this simpering and slightly patronizing couple of sentences from the company’s promotional flier (a very cleverly designed tube of green oil paint):

“Whether it’s a stunning landscape rendered in oil paints or a series of sepia-toned photographs, the creativity of our baristas is something we encourage. Creativity is what stirs our souls, and it’s an important part of what makes Starbucks come to life.”

Starbucks can think what it likes, but I would be surprised if any of the company’s baristas see the job of making a gingerbread latte macchiato as an act of creativity. (Having said that, the person responsible for inventing such a beverage should win a contemporary art prize. The drink looks like something Jeff Koons could have come up with. )

But what’s great about this project, first and foremost, is the company’s celebration of the fact that most of its store-front staff have lives beyond the espresso machine. According to the Avant-Grande website, the idea for the project was borne in 2003 and grew out of baristas’ embellishments to the boards advertising seasonal drinks and other promotions in Starbucks outlets. I guess doodling in chalk was a way to relieve some of the tedium of working. Rather than chiding employees for wasting time, Starbucks decided to take those scribblings and run with them. In organizing this project, Starbucks understands that most people view the job of making coffee as little more than a great way to keep a roof over their heads and facilitate their passions, whether that be painting, or choreography, or making model railways in the attic.

The leverage created by Starbucks’ involvement is also potentially a positive thing for a budding artist. It’s a way of showing work – albeit just for one day. For artists starting out, having work accepted for public exhibition can be difficult. And the collaboration with the Academy of Art University might also open doors for Starbucks employees (I’m sure many AA students moonlight as baristas already.)

I didn’t see last year’s exhibition so I cannot attest to the success of Starbucks’ good intentions or the quality of the work on show. The Avant-Garde website features a few eye-catching images though. I was particularly struck by a nude in fetus position and a lovely floral canvas with soft lines and lots of spiraling tendrils. I think I’ll go along to Terra Gallery to check the exhibition out. Here’s another good thing: Starbucks is donating the purchase price of tickets to the exhibition to Kid Serve Youth Murals.


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